The fourth novel from the Irish author opens in rural Ireland in 1973 where, one day, 20-year-old Mary Gladney, known as Moll, simply takes the morning bus and disappears. Her humble, elderly parents, Paddy and Kit, are bewildered and grief-stricken at the loss of their only child-until five years later she returns, out of the blue. In lyrical prose, Ryan gradually reveals the inner lives of his central characters and, although the mystery of where she has been is revealed fairly soon (no spoilers here) the reason she left is hidden until the end.
Ryan is at the vanguard of contemporary Irish fiction’s magnificent resurgence, what Sebastian Barry, the country’s fiction laureate, has celebrated as “an unexpected golden age of Irish prose writing”. Strange Flowers may be the weakest of Ryan’s novels, but it is still a gorgeously wrought book – compassionate without dissolving into nostalgia. “Do your best to hear beyond the spoken, to see the quality of light in another’s eyes,” Ryan entreated readers in From a Low and Quiet Sea. In Strange Flowers, he’s taken his own advice.
In Strange Flowers, Ryan has fully embraced his poetic voice; and the story is heavy with pathos. A lesser writer’s attempts at this level of profound would easily fail, coming across as overly sentimental or grandiose. But Ryan is speaking from a place of vision and awareness, and he has done the work of crafting his style in his earliest novels, The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December
The same sensibility that impelled Ryan to write about Farouk the Syrian doctor in From a Low and Quiet Sea, or Travellers in 2016’s All We Shall Know, has impelled him towards this dutiful, well-meaning though at times flawed fifth novel. In order to negotiate the feelings of then, and think his way into the heads of rural 1970s white people who had never met black people, he must naturally lean into their own cache of descriptive language. There is much made of full lips, full women and flat noses. Of people “black as night”, or as “the ace of spades”
When Moll and Alexander’s son, a would-be writer, also walks out, history seems to be repeating itself — although the real meat of the story, dished up late in the day, lies elsewhere.
The result is a novel carried by deep feeling and great empathy, rather than by a less-than-convincing plot that reminds you too frequently of the author’s hand on the tiller.