Sometimes, if I am lucky, I have the privilege of reading a book that is brilliantly written. Such is the case with 'All We Shall Know' by Donal Ryan. The author has a way with words, his narrative so smooth and sensuous that it catches the reader immediately.
The novel begins with Melody Shee's statement that "Martin Toppy is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child. He's seventeen, I'm thirty-three. I was his teacher. I'd have killed myself by now if I was brave enough." Melody is married to Pat and she tells him that she is pregnant by a man she met on the internet. Their marriage has been fraught with hateful and reciprocal fighting, each trying to pull the other down as low as possible. Melody has suffered two miscarriages with Pat and he has been despairing of ever having a child. Though they once loved each other, now their feelings come out sideways and, much of the time, hatefully.
The novel is structured in chapters, one for each week of Melody's pregnancy, from week 12 through week 40. The reader is privy to her self-loathing and her inability to forgive herself for what she considers irredeemable actions. She is tormented by the suicide of her friend Breedie Flynn who she betrayed in high school, the dissolution of her marriage, and the the fact that she had sex with a 17 year old Traveller boy who she tutored in basic literacy. (For those who are unfamiliar with the term 'Travellors', it refers to Irish Gypsies).
Melody finds herself drawn to the caravan park where Martin's family had landed. While there, she meets a young woman named Mary Crothery to whom she is inexplicably drawn. Mary is being punished, almost shunned, by her family for having left her husband Buzzy while they were in England. Mary has been unable to conceive a child and felt that it would be best for Buzzy to be without her. Buzzy's family believes that Mary's family knew about her infertility and that Buzzy was set up. Thus a feud is in the works. It is to be handled in the Traveller way.
As Mary and Melody become closer, Melody is unaware of the danger that Mary is in. Melody tutors Mary in basic literacy and they share stories of their lives. Mary has the gift of vision and knows from the outset that Melody is pregnant, even before she begins to show. Their relationship and connection is one of the most lovely parts of the novel.
Melody's struggle to live, to not take her life, is painted vividly. Daily, she perseverates on dying and holds only her father's panicked eyes and her own fear of pain as tethers. Melody's relationship with her father is tender and loving. It is her father who offers her a psychological and physical sanctuary when things are at their worst.
As Melody navigates pregnancy in her small Irish town where everyone knows about the disintegration of her marriage and her friendship with a traveller woman, emotions flare and erupt. Life is not easy for Melody but the question is whether she can persevere and if she does, how can she do it?
This is a literary novel of the highest order, one of the best books I've read this year and a true gem. I had not heard of Donal Ryan prior to reading 'All We Shall Know', but I will surely look up his other writings.