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”.