ALL WE SHALL KNOW

Donal Ryan

Penguin, £7.99

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Setting himself the challenge of writing in a woman’s voice for his third novel has brought Donal Ryan’s fiction to a peak of emotional nakedness and intensity – while simultaneously landing him with the tricky task of eliciting sympathy for a central character who has wrought great damage on the people around her, and continues to do so.

His protagonist is Melody Shee, a 33-year-old Irishwoman who is pregnant after a brief fling with a Traveller lad of 17 she was teaching to read who has since moved to another part of the country. Confronted with her infidelity, her husband Pat walked out. The neighbourhood shuns her, regarding her claims that Pat and other local men have been seeing prostitutes as the kind of heinous lies one would expect from an adulteress.

But the source of Melody’s profound sense of guilt runs deeper. Flashbacks show how she constantly belittled Pat, withheld affection, manipulated situations so that they would flare up into arguments. “I couldn’t bear flatness, equilibrium, to exist on a plain, in a straight unbroken line without trough or crest to hide me from myself. I engineered these passions, these trials, to convince myself I was living a life,” she explains.

Buried beneath that is a more primal shame still. To ensnare Pat, her school sweetheart, Melody sided with the popular girls against her former best friend Breedie, taking confidences they shared and scrawling them across school walls. She’s in no doubt that her betrayal contributed to Breedie’s suicide, but it was also a factor in dragging her marriage out. She felt obliged to stay with Pat because “Breedie Flynn died that it might be so”.

Just when she needed a friend the most, she seems to have found a kindred spirit in Traveller Mary Crothery. Mary is in disgrace too, having walked out on the man she was married to, and her family is making her suffer for it. But as the pair is bonding, Melody is starting to get bricks through her window and the threat looms of a big outbreak of violence among the Travellers.

All We Shall Know is an emotionally raw book, and there’s a lot of weeping. Like a manipulative TV drama, everyone stops for a cry every few pages. More troublingly, for all the respect that Ryan seems to have for their culture, his association of Travellers with inevitable violence undermines his stance somewhat. But it’s fascinating, even a little invigorating, to watch a story unfold from the perspective of a central character as flawed and unpleasant as Melody Shee; someone who hates herself, nurses grudges and impulsively lashes out in a way that, even if we don’t see it in ourselves, we find instantly familiar. Thanks to her self-awareness and remorse, Melody is far from irredeemable. Her relationship with Mary, and indeed her split from her husband, could be the key to becoming a better person. But such redemption requires sacrifice, and Ryan has something very specific in mind, which gives his narrative a satisfying shape and a cathartic resolution.