Trapped in small-town Ireland and bereft after a break-up, 23-year-old Lampy wonders how he might ‘tell his grandfather that he wanted to find a place where the measure of a man was different’. This yearning for a notional elsewhere and the keenly topical subject of migration are at the heart of Donal Ryan’s Booker Prize-longlisted fourth novel, From a Low and Quiet Sea, which contrasts Lampy’s experiences with those of two other male figures, before bringing them together expertly at the end. It is tighter than Ryan’s Faulknerian first novel, The Spinning Heart: every image here – from religious iconography to the sea itself – is set to work in an intricate plot that carries real emotional heft.
The first voice belongs to Farouk, a Syrian doctor who reluctantly decides he must take his family to what he hopes will be a safe haven in Europe. He tells his daughter that the sound of nearby gunfire is ‘the noise of a great machine that was being used to frighten birds away from crops’. Every day, he resists the forces of ISIS, who threaten to take over his hospital. Finally, he meets a people trafficker, ‘this dealer in flesh’, and sets a date for his departure. But he soon discovers he’s been conned: ‘There are no lifejackets on this boat. There is no captain. There is no crew. There is nothing on this boat but us.’ Farouk’s plight is richly imagined and wholly convincing. While his fate and those of his wife and daughter hang in the balance, the reader yearns to find out what happens next.
From here, the narrative travels to Ireland, the prose reverting to the paratactic mode that’s become Ryan’s trademark (‘And he’d feel himself getting cross with her and he wouldn’t answer her and he’d swear beneath his breath…’). It’s the perfect medium in which to render Lampy’s urgent, thwarted desires and