“From a Low and Quiet Sea,” a new novel by the Irish writer Donal Ryan, recently longlisted for the Booker Prize, begins with a story snatched from life. When a group of fundamentalists in Syria crucify a small boy, a local doctor, Farouk, and his family decide to flee, taking to the sea in the custody of human smugglers. Catastrophe ensues. Farouk eventually settles in Ireland, and his narrative is braided with the stories of two other shattered men there: Lampy, young and lovelorn, and John, frantically expiating for a life of violence. They are all, in different ways, locked in the “silent, gentle frenzy” of grief when a tragedy (yet another) brings them together.
Ryan’s first two novels were famously rejected more than 47 times combined. Both went on to garner awards and acclaim, and he’s since settled into a groove, even a register all his own: domestic dramas in a minor key inflected by current events — Ireland’s financial collapse; the treatment of the country’s stigmatized minority groups, like the Travelers.
Never an especially subtle writer, Ryan has cast off any lingering restraint in his latest. In old movie parlance, this book is a three-hankie weeper. No need to sift for themes; they’re practically announced in booming voice-over: In a world torn asunder by the arbitrary and anxiously defended borders of statehood and masculinity…
Not bad themes, I concede. The trouble is in the casting. Farouk is a spindly and sentimental construction who never attains actual character status. He is the product, it seems, of the author’s immense pity for — but scant actual curiosity about — the figure of “the migrant.”
Farouk is Syrian, but he might as well be Iraqi, Libyan, Uighur. He might be from Neptune. His country is presented to us as all heat and dust and moonlight; his family communicates in inscrutable Eastern-sounding parables. (“Man was Nature’s way of seeing itself, of feeling what it’s like to be.”)
The terror he flees from is blurry, prettified: “In the far distance another series of crackling bursts, like dry leaves underfoot fragmenting to dust.” In what tender universe?, I wondered. In my experience of living in a city under siege, gunfire has a way of sounding unnervingly like gunfire. From the first page to the last, the character remains hazy, a generic “other” conjured to make the reader feel (poor Farouk!) but never think (why Farouk?) or ask unnerving questions (what is my own complicity in his loss?).
It’s plain that Ryan intended the opposite; in interviews, he has spoken of how desperately he wanted to do justice to the experiences of migrants. If his failure feels pronounced, it’s because narratives of migration have, in recent years, become ever more sophisticated, various and truthful. Many of these books have been by immigrant novelists themselves, but two recently praised novels — Jenny Erpenbeck’s “Go, Went, Gone” and Lisa Halliday’s “Asymmetry” — have raised knotty questions about how Western writers can (maybe even must) approach what Erpenbeck calls “the central moral question of our time.”
Built into both those books is a resistance to letting the reader tour the traumas of others, to be what the critic James Wood has termed a “moral flâneur,” who can simply congratulate herself for having the “right” feelings. “Compassion is an unstable emotion,” Susan Sontag wrote in “Regarding the Pain of Others.” “It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.” Erpenbeck and Halliday write as if guided by this injunction; their books feature characters obsessed with questions of how to act ethically and efficaciously.
There is none of this kind of meta-commentary in Ryan’s novel, which is more preoccupied with what these men will never fully understand about their own lives, let alone the lives of others. Lampy and John, especially, have been blinded and brutalized by their upbringing.
One expects more from the author, however, who gives us bathos and melodrama — descriptions of the “long ragged tear of the galaxy, like a wound in the sky, weeping” — and vacuous philosophizing instead of real intimacy and narrative stakes: “Maybe every man’s true self is like a particle unobserved, assuming all possible shapes in any given moment, only fastening into one when it’s called upon to be, to do.”
This feels particularly like an affront because Ryan, when disciplined, can notice so finely and can capture personality in such swift strokes. There is a moment in the novel when Farouk and his family have boarded their doomed boat to freedom. Feeling a swell of pride to have arranged everything just so, he “looked at the line of the profile of his wife’s face, and he stirred a little so she’d look at him, and when she did he knew that he’d been right, that she saw him as a capable man, a strong husband and father.”
It’s the way he “stirs” that moves me, the way he knows how to get her attention without asking for it, his need to see a particular expression on her face as affirmation. It’s a little moment that captures something deep and particular to them and their marriage — but also something of what can pass between writer and reader. In a strange way, any lesson Ryan might have to learn might come from Farouk — of subtlety and the art of the eloquent gesture.
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