From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan
Published March 22, 2018
It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are some books you can read at the right or wrong time in your life and enjoy that much more or less as a result. I’m convinced that there are also books you can read in a correct and incorrect way. Some books are meant to be devoured; to be absorbed over just a day or two of intense reading, after which you come up for air. From a Low and Quiet Sea is one of those books and I foolishly read it in exactly the wrong way.
From a Low and Quiet Sea reads more like a series of short stories than it does a novel. In order, we’re introduced to Farouk, a man who makes the difficult choice to flee Syria with his wife and daughter in hopes of a better, safer life for his family, Lampy, a young bus driver from a rural Irish town who has recently had his heart broken, and John, an older man who has lived his life in the shadow of his beloved brother’s premature death. Although thematically the stories are connected through a feeling of absence, of loss of something, or someone, dear, they seem to have little in common until the stories cleverly converge in an ending that is both unexpected and rewarding.
The problem with multiple perspectives is that one part is often stronger than the others. Such is the case here, where Farouk’s story is by far the most compelling part of From a Low and Quiet Sea. I was hooked from the first page and read voraciously. While John’s perspective, the only one told in first person (to be more specific, in the style of a confession given to a priest) is also interesting, the stakes and tension are so much lower in Lampy’s rural town that it’s difficult to feel as strongly about the story. Ultimately John and Lampy’s stories never quite measured up to the promise of those early chapters.
The biggest reason to read and love From a Low and Quiet Sea though is the prose. Like many readers, I’m a sucker for a well-crafted sentence, and this book offers some of the best examples of craftsmanship I’ve read. There’s a melodic, flowing quality to Ryan’s prose which I imagine would lend itself well to an audiobook, yet there’s also, especially in the Lampy sections, that black comedy that I’ve come to expect and adore from Irish writers. Ryan has the rare gift of always seeming to choose exactly the right word to express a thought or emotion, which makes for a really lovely reading experience.
Reading this short (it clocks in at a slim 181 pgs) book over three or four days, it took me longer to make the connections between the stories and to garner meaning from the text. Like when I foolishly tried to read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo on a heavily scheduled vacation, I wasn’t as absorbed in or affected by the book as I hoped I would be. I’d consider my reading experience to be more of a 3.5 star one, but I’m 90% sure I would have gotten more out of From a Low and Quiet Sea if I had read it in one sitting, so I’ve rounded up to the 4 stars it most likely deserves. Planning to pick this up? Give it the attention it deserves and settle in for an evening. You won’t regret it.