This is Donal Ryan’s third novel and is the second of his that I have read. I need to seek out the second novel (‘The Thing About December’).
‘Martin Toppy is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child.’ ‘He’s seventeen. I’m thirty-three.’
And, in these opening lines of ‘All We Shall Know’, Donal Ryan sets the reader for a brief (fewer than two hundred pages) but challenging story. Challenging? For me, certainly. It took me a while to get beyond simply judging Melody Shee to paying attention to her story. Why does a thirty-three-year-old woman become pregnant to a seventeen-year-old? How did their lives intersect in this way? What about her husband Pat?
‘These are all just bits and fragments, shards; no one can tell the story of a life or a friendship or a death or a marriage day for day for day.’
The writing held my attention as the story unfolded. Week by week, through the second and third trimesters of her pregnancy, Melody moves between the concerns of the present and the events of the past. Her pregnancy shapes her life now, but her elderly father and her friendship with Mary Crothery (a Traveller woman) add other dimensions. Melody also reflects on the past, on her marriage to Pat (who has now moved out), on how she treated her friend Breedie Flynn. All the while, she wonders about her baby.
‘Fate, the idea of it, has substance only in retrospect, yet lately all my moments seem ordained, fashioned by a finger not my own.’
Chapter by chapter Melody’s pregnancy progresses as does her relationship with Mary Crothery. It’s Melody’s world we are tied to, but as each chapter ended I found myself wondering what would happen at the end of the pregnancy. What choices would Melody make? How would I (the involved and judgmental reader) react to those choices?
I found this novel challenging. While I never felt great sympathy for Melody, it was the consequences of her choices and Mr Ryan’s presentation of them that held my attention. And kept me thinking. This novel is short enough to be read in one sitting and complex enough to hold your attention for much longer.