Strange Flowers, by Donal Ryan, Doubleday, 228 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-0857525222
A little more than a century ago, in a prefatory note to the American edition of his now classic novel The Valley of the Squinting Windows (1918), Brinsley MacNamara passed sharp judgement on an exceedingly popular Irish novel of the previous century, Charles Joseph Kickham’s Knocknagow (1873). Describing it as “a story of the quiet homesteads of Ireland” and “a book full of inspiration and truth and beauty”, he also designated it “most certainly the book with which the new Irish novelist would endeavour to contrast his own”: He went on to explain:
For he would be writing of life, as the modern novelist’s art is essentially a realistic one, and not of the queer, distant, half pleasing, half saddening thing which could make one Irish farmer’s daughter say to another at any time within the past forty years:
“And you’d often see things happening nearly in real life like in ‘Knocknagow’. Now wouldn’t you?”
Notwithstanding Aodh de Blácam’s assertion in 1942 that “Knocknagow never will die, unless the Irish nation dies”, the novel’s shelf life is now long expired.
And yet it lives on vestigially ‑ reinforced by its subtitle, The Homes of Tipperary ‑ in the pages of Donal Ryan’s fifth novel, Strange Flowers, set mostly in Knockagowny, a Tipperary townland conspicuously cognate with the placename Kickham inscribed for posterity. In Ryan’s novel, the principal “home” is that of Paddy and Kit Gladney and their daughter Moll, a modest cottage on a few acres they lease from the prosperous Jackman family, whose home becomes more prominent late in the narrative. The opening paragraph of the novel establishes how the Gladneys enjoyed that life of “frugal comfort” and “cosy homesteads” famously idealised by Taoiseach Éamon de Valera in his St Patrick’s Day radio broadcast in 1943. Paddy is the parish postman as well as the caretaker for the Jackmans’ farm, Kit does the books for some local businesses, and with Moll they kneel and say the rosary together every night:
And they had a radio and a dresser and a yard of hens, and a green and yielding world around them in every direction: the Arra Mountains behind them and, beyond the brow of Ton Tenna, the shallow valley that dipped across to the Silvermines Mountains, which stretched away as far as the eye could see, to the ends of the earth, it seemed, on a bright day. And the main road and the village below their house at the end of the lane, and the Shannon callows, soft and lush below the village, and the river running through the callows to the lake, glinting always on the low horizon, no matter what.
So they lived … until Moll inexplicably “disappeared”.
In four previous novels and a collection of short stories, Ryan established his facility for inhabiting ‑ and thus for revealing ‑ the minds and the spirits of his characters through deft deployment of varying narrative points of view. His debut novel, The Spinning Heart (2012), for example, is a polyvocal tour de force, comprising twenty-one different and distinctive first-person narrative voices. More recently, From a Low and Quiet Sea (2018) shifts between and among the perspectives of its three principal characters. In Strange Flowers, Ryan opts for a fully omniscient perspective, an impressively effective strategy for illuminating with prismatic radiance the complexity of life for the mixed-race grandson of Paddy and Kit Gladney in latter-day Tipperary, Ryan’s own home county. (References to the Vietnam War and the rise of the Troubles in the North early in the novel suggest that the narrative, covering a period of about twenty-five years, begins around 1970.)
Obviously, authorial omniscience allows Ryan to move freely between Knockagowny and London, the two main physical settings for the novel. More to the point, it allows him to move ‑ even within any given paragraph ‑ between and among the full cast of major characters for whom Knockagowny is a powerful magnet: Paddy and Kit, Moll, Moll’s husband, Alexander (“a black man from England”, as Paddy describes him), their fair-skinned son Joshua, Joshua’s love interest Honey, and Ellen Jackman. In the first half of the novel, this strategy creates an ensemble effect. The reader experiences with immediacy the distress and deep sadness shared by Moll’s parents after her disappearance and also the ambivalence and anxiety that Moll feels upon her return five years later. Her mother’s simplistic attitude toward Moll’s situation does not help: “All that was required for forgiveness was contrition … [I]t was unlikely there’d be anything said to any confessor that wasn’t heard before, and Moll could light a whole bank of candles after her prayers of penance, and Kit would gladly help to fund the lighting of them, and they’d carry her back with every stain and smirch removed from her precious tormented soul.”
The gradual assimilation of Alexander into the small world of Knockagowny and environs is also fraught with tension: “His blackness here was as remarkable as his son’s whiteness had been in Notting Hill, and all the pain of difference now was his, and this is how it had to be. Everywhere people stared. He pretended to be oblivious but in truth he was always aware of the looking, of the whispered conjecture, of the jokes he knew were being made at his expense …” Less subtly, conscripted to play for the local hurling club (a culture shock in itself), Alexander is subjected to both physical and verbal attacks sparked and fuelled by racist ignorance. His “strange celebrity” a permanent condition, life in and around the Gladneys’ Tipperary “homestead” is not so cosy after all. Ryan also allows the reader to sense that the relationship between the Gladney and Jackman households has untold secrets that may explain Moll’s running away to London in the first place.
In the second half of the novel, however, Joshua emerges from the ensemble as the protagonist of Strange Flowers. Unmoored by both his grandfather and his father having died and made to feel an outsider because of his biracial identity, he has run off to London like his mother before him. Now in his late teens, he aspires to be a writer, and Ryan interpolates into the main narrative Joshua’s “alternative gospel” ‑ his retelling of the biblical story of Christ’s gift of sight to the blind man in John 9:1-41. Originally directed to this story by his father, he thinks of it “as his father’s story”, and as he shares it with Honey in instalments, the reader begins to recognise it as a parable with parallels to his father’s life and predicament: making his way through the world via echolocation, the blind young man serves as a cipher for Alexander’s naive blindness regarding the reason for Moll’s physical and emotional distancing of herself from him throughout their relationship. (That reason becomes clear at the end of the novel ‑ the Jackman family is involved.) But after sight has been given to him by the Messiah, the young man becomes a cipher for Joshua himself as his very act of sharing the story with Honey, from the safe remove of London, affords him insight into so much that remains taboo to acknowledge not just in his small corner of Tipperary but throughout Ireland: racism, obviously, and socio-economic inequities in general, but also male sexual predation, the validity of same-sex relationships and the realities of domestic dysfunction. Like the formerly blind young man who is brought back home by his father at the end of Joshua’s tale, Joshua himself can see his way back to Knockagowny with new eyes for understanding the complex social dynamic there. Ryan’s reader sees it too, a “hidden Ireland” revealed, the antithesis of Kickham’s Knocknagow.
In an essay titled “In Defense of Omniscience”, the celebrated American novelist Richard Russo muses on how omniscient narration, “in the end, is a mature writer’s technique”: “Our being drawn to it has something to do with years, with experience of life, with the gradual accumulation of knowledge and pain and wisdom.” With five books of fiction already to his credit, Donal Ryan wears that mantle of maturity comfortably in Strange Flowers. Incidentally, another observation that Russo makes may explain Ryan’s decision to erect a scaffolding of biblical resonance ‑ Genesis, Judges, Exodus, Song of Songs, Wisdom, Revelation ‑ to mark the six-part arc of the novel’s narrative: “Omniscience not only invents a world; it tells us how that world works and how we should feel about the way it works.”
Thomas O’Grady is professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where he was director of Irish Studies from 1984 to 2019. He is currently scholar-in-residence at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana.