In his fourth novel, Donal Ryan has not only bounded over a wall into new territory, but built himself a castle there ... The three stories are equally involving but it is only when the final section arrives that they are drawn together in the most heartbreaking manner. There are revelations to be found in the closing pages, and connections between characters that took me by surprise—making me utter an expletive aloud in Dublin airport while reading ... This is a superb novel, from a writer building a body of work the equal of any today. His books are filled with love and righteous anger, most of which lurks darkly beneath the surface ready to explode like an ill-judged comment at a family gathering.
Like its predecessors, the novel is concerned with the vulnerable, unspeakable and furious aspects of masculinity and is in Ryan’s distinctive colloquial style. The prose is laced with compassion and quiet emotion ... It is in the final 28 pages that the three strands, which sway in the same melancholic wind but rarely collide, are blown together in a gust of pacey, heart-wrenching action—and you realise they were destined to knot all along. The denouement, which comes in breathless bursts, is devastating. From a Low and Quiet Sea leaves you with that sense of discombobulating enlightenment that so often characterizes the quiet epiphanies of great short stories.
From a Low and Quiet Sea is so exquisitely rendered, with raw anguish sublimated into lyrical prose, that you sometimes overlook the meagerness of its slice-of-life offerings. Meager because Ryan abides with a character only long enough to lay bare his particular emotional trauma before segueing to another tortured soul. The good news is that he weaves his three protagonists’ deceptively discrete trajectories together, creating a triptych of poignant and at times haunting stories ... The overall outcome, however, is undeniably affecting — all the more so given Ryan’s skillful mapping of the stories’ various imbrications, which become apparent in the revelatory finale. Indeed, From a Low and Quiet Sea is too meticulously wrought and too artfully concluded to feel inchoate or truncated. Yet it does leave you wishing that Ryan had lingered a while longer with each of his disparate-yet-nimbly-linked protagonists.
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 ... 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 ... 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 ... One expects more from the author, however, who gives us bathos and melodrama and vacuous philosophizing instead of real intimacy and narrative stakes ... This feels particularly like an affront because Ryan, when disciplined, can notice so finely and can capture personality in such swift strokes.
In Ryan’s accomplished hands, we care about each of his three men—their hopes, their fears, their longings—and yet willingly move on to the next [section]. Each section displays Ryan’s range as a writer ... In the short final section these vivid narratives come together, and we understand what has been hiding in plain sight in Lampy and John’s stories. Such is Ryan’s devotion to his characters that none of this feels willed but rather like the best kind of revelation ... Ryan writes with brilliant empathy about those in between.
It’s only in the final straight that Ryan reveals how [the characters are] all connected. This is quite annoying. Not least because there’s a woman who acts as the fulcrum for this slightly improbable coming-together, and she gets short shrift. There’s a message here about compassion (the notion of being kind crops up more than once), but in this instance Ryan has let the structuring of his story overwhelm its humanity.
Mr. Ryan has a sensitive feel for the process of atonement, the gradual shifts in the human heart that steer his characters from wrongdoing or despair toward some form of redemption ... From a Low and Quiet Sea has similar moments of vulnerability and grace [to his previous novel], but overall it’s less fulfilling, an arrangement of character sketches rather than a fluent story. A final section cleverly links the three men, but the narrative legerdemain speaks less to interconnection than to mere coincidence. Farouk spells out the book’s moral on the first page: 'Be kind.' That applies whether the characters are bound together or all on their own.
Ryan...has rightly been praised for his gift for empathy. He is also a writer of beauty and precision. But Farouk’s monologue is this novel’s weakest link: his story will feel tragically familiar to anyone who has read the news over the past seven years—the character is somehow not particular or idiosyncratic enough to really come alive ... In contrast, those who narrate the subsequent sections of the book have their own pulse ... The author resists making any connection between the three stories until the final section—a daring decision, as by this time it feels almost impossible that the book will come together. But it does, in a conclusion that is both deft and devastating. Several secondary characters chip in with short narratives, which reveal how closely Farouk, Lampy and John’s three lives are intertwined. It becomes clear that this book is both hard-hitting and uplifting: it serves as an indictment of the care industry, but also a tribute to the way humans care for one another.
The whole novel clocks in at just under two hundred pages, and for most writers, telling the story of multiple characters in such a small space would be a challenge. But this book contains worlds ... The short chapters and page count, combined with the interlocking stories, insist that the novel be read quickly ... the language and the underlying meaning here are the novel’s great strengths ... it is all gorgeous prose, sentences that go on in an often Joycean fashion, association upon association, providing deep insight into each character ... These three characters from Lampy’s story each get their say in the final pages of the book...There is genuine surprise here, when we learn of the connections, and yet, it is all satisfyingly inevitable, bits of the story we may have skipped over, not quite guessing their importance.
Ryan is an accomplished stylist; delicately and effortlessly, he renders the cadences of everyday speech. His imagery, too is succinct ... Yet for all Ryan’s beautiful writing, the novel never amounts to anything more than the sum of its parts. The final section, in which the characters come together, is intended to be a moment of tragedy and pathos, but is bathetic, trivial. I couldn’t help but feel that had Ryan allowed himself to stray further, to follow Farouk’s journey, leave Lampy and John at home, From a Low and Quiet Sea might have matched his dazzling talent.
The final, brief section of the novel makes an attempt, not altogether successful, to provide some unity to the previous three parts, for it at least references all three of the major characters. Ultimately, this is a novel that is long on character development but lacking a center.
A ‘tiny Armageddon’, marks the beginning of From a Low and Quiet Sea. Farouk, husband and father, puts himself in the hands of a shady-looking character who promises to smuggle his little family to Europe by ship. The risk is terrible; the upshot is tragedy … The plot has a nice snap, but the novel’s true excellence lies in Ryan’s skill in moving the story along through the thoughts of his characters. The heart of his craft lies in his mastery of Irish voices, limber colloquial speech that captures their mental and spiritual universe. In this regard, the Syrian’s story has a rather pro forma worthiness about it, unlike the following three, which breathe real life, making this another fine and memorable novel.