Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan
Published by Doubleday, 2020
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
In 1973, 20-year-old Moll Gladney disappears without warning from her home in rural Ireland, leaving behind her devastated parents and gossip-hungry neighbours. Five years later, Moll returns, but this time she isn’t alone. In little more than 200 pages, Donal Ryan has created a sweeping family saga that chronicles three generations’ worth of secrets and longing, looking at how love can help us overcome even the greatest losses and the most fundamental of differences.
If the book could be distilled down to its very core message, I would describe it as being about the complexity and diversity of love within a family unit – a true celebration of the unconventional. Repeated motifs of parents being separated from their children, and lovers kept apart due to internalised and societal prejudices allow for a poignant look at the pain of suppressing your heart’s true desires, and the ruling influence of reputation.
Beyond this, Ryan does a wonderful job of capturing the duality of religion; its paradoxical ability to incite misguided fear of the other, and bring comfort in times of need. He also manages to comment on class divides with relation to the land, raising the thorny issue of ownership versus heritage, and which should take precedence. The recurring theme of difference – and the importance of acceptance both internal and external in the pursuit of true happiness – is also handled really well.
It’s difficult to talk more about the novel’s most successful and affecting threads without resorting to plot spoilers. Suffice to say that Ryan handles big topics with due sensitivity and empathy. However, I must concede that, given the nature of the story’s characters and themes, there were moments when I struggled to see past the book’s authorship to fully lose myself in the narrative. There’s also a ‘story within a story’ segue in the book’s midsection which sees one of the characters rewrite a Bible story so it mirrors one of the novel’s major themes (about how society causes more harm than good by trying to change someone in order to ‘help’ them or make them fit in). I adored the theme in itself, but these sections felt like an unnecessary distraction from the characters I already loved, with the device being somewhat heavy-handed given how wonderfully nuanced Ryan’s writing is naturally.
The prose itself is as beautiful as I’ve come to expect from Ryan, punctuated by his characteristically gorgeous turn of phrase. Lengthy run-on sentences, a lack of marked speech, and a non-linear timeline may frustrate some, but they lend the book a feeling of breathless unburdening; a purging of long-held pain that stretches across generations. This, in itself, is hugely reflective of the book’s narrative arc, and thus felt very well considered.
In short, this is another excellent novel from a writer I now feel confident including among my favourites. Ryan’s ability to get to the very heart of his characters, and to imbue even the most domestic situations with intense emotional weight is truly impressive. I will continue to follow what he publishes with much excitement.
Thank you to the publisher for a free advanced copy in exchange for an honest review, and to the lovely Cathy for seeing it make its way to me safely. You can pick up a copy of Strange Flowers by clicking here.