Author, Book review, Donal Ryan, Doubleday, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Strange Flowers’ by Donal Ryan

Fiction – Kindle edition; Doubleday; 240 pages; 2020.

Given my penchant for Irish literature, you would think that I would have read a Donal Ryan novel by now. Admittedly, I did give his debut novel, The Spinning Heart, a go when it was first published in 2012 but abandoned it because it wasn’t working for me. I almost did the same with this one.

Family problems

Strange Flowers, published in 2020, is a novel spanning three generations of one family.

Set in rural Ireland in the early 1970s, it tells the story of Moll Gladney, a young woman who one day leaves the family home without explanation and does not return.

Her distraught parents, Paddy and Kit, believe they will never see her again, thinking their daughter “was either pregnant or dead, and it was hard to know which one of those was worse”. They continue on with their lives as best they can, their existence a “solemn half-life of work and prayers and weakening hope”.

Five years go by and then, completely out of the blue, Moll returns, dragging a troubled past with her. That past includes a husband — a black man named Alexander Elmwood  — and a child, Joshua, both of whom she has left behind in London.

A new life

The story follows what happens when Alexander turns up in Ireland to try to find his wife, how the pair settle into rural life and the close bond Josh develops with his grandparents. Later, when Josh is an adult, he repeats his mother’s pattern of behaviour by fleeing to London.

Despite being told in a disjointed manner employing different points of view along the way —  Strange Flowers is broken into six parts named after sections in the Bible — it’s easy enough to follow and all the loose ends are nicely tied up at the end. We even find out why Moll went on the run in the first place, right back in 1973, which makes for a satisfying read.

And while the narrative is occasionally devastating and sad and brims with melancholia and a sense of history repeating, there was something about it that just did not work for me.

I hesitate to use the word “twee” but it’s the first one that springs to mind. The Irishness feels overdone to the point of being “Oirish” and ditto for the breathless nature of the prose in which some sentences are up to a page long.

I also had difficulty with the portrayal of Alexander’s family in London and the way in which an English black man could be so readily accepted by a small Irish community (he experiences little to no racism).

On the whole, I felt rather lukewarm about this novel, but realise this puts me out of step with many other readers and critics, all of whom have heaped praise on it.

Strange Flowers won the An Post Irish Novel of the Year in 2020 and has been described by the Sunday Independent as “one of the greatest novels of this century”. 

19 thoughts on “‘Strange Flowers’ by Donal Ryan”

  1. Sorry to hear this one didn’t quite work for you, Kim. When I saw your review I was sure you’d have loved it! I read Ryan’s first novel when there was a great deal of brouhaha around it and was underwhelmed but over the years I’ve come to love his writing.


    1. I was expecting to love this… so many good reviews and blurbs waxing lyrical. But the storyline, from beginning to end, felt overly contrived. And I could see right through the joins and knew exactly how the author was trying to manipulate his reader. I’m not sure whether I want to read anything else by him now. Do you have a favourite ?


  2. Ah, I’m one of those who loved this book. I accept much of what you say, but perhaps because I read it in the midst of the pandemic, when happy endings were sorely needed, and we were all being super-nice to one another, and loving our neighbour as ourselves, it chimed with me. I’d got Ryan down as a must-read author, though haven’t managed to borrow anything else of his from the library yet.


    1. I could see how this one would appeal as a lockdown read. It’s a great story but the way it was presented just didn’t work for me. I might try another one by him and see how I go.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I haven’t read this one as yet, but the ‘Irishness’ sounds a little off-putting. Donal Ryan was at HomePlace last week promoting his new book and he was a real gent though.


  4. I haven’t read him but your comment about it being all nicely tied up pricked my ears. It’s not necessarily what I love in contemporary writers. The extended family story, however, sounds appealing.


    1. I’m not usually a fan of neat endings but this one actually worked well because it explains so much behind Moll’s original decision to leave and her awkward marriage.


  5. Interesting contrast to the general praise. You may be into something, in the sense that some Irish writers (in particular) prove stronger than others when resisting the urge to crowd please. I haven’t read it the novel, but I almost wish the writer would see this review and ask himself if you’ve got a fair point here!


    1. I think I just have a high antennae for overblown Irishness because I’ve read HUNDREDS of Irish novels, I have spent a lot of time in Ireland and my partner is Irish. I’m basically a Hibernophile. Or maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for this story 🤷🏻‍♀️


  6. I’ve enjoyed Ryan’s earlier novels far more than this one. I similarly had an issue with the ease with which Alexander fits into life in a small rural community. It felt a bit too much like wishful thinking.

    Liked by 1 person

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