The opening line of Strange Flowers, Donal Ryan’s sixth book, takes some beating:
All the light left Paddy Gladney’s eyes when his daughter disappeared; all the gladness went from his heart.
The rest of the opening chapter continues in this tone of shock and bewilderment: Paddy and his wife Kit, who live and work on a farm they don’t own in County Tipperary, are reeling from the sudden disappearance of their teenage daughter Moll, last seen on a bus to Dublin. They have no idea where she is fleeing, or why – a mystery the book holds to its chest until its final pages.
But what feels like the first grip of a dark thriller blossoms, in a tangled and unexpected way, into something very different. Moll does return, some years later, without much of an explanation but with a family of her own. In the years she was presumed dead, she has met and married the doting Alexander, who arrives from London soon afterwards with their baby son Joshua. Alexander’s arrival causes ripples in the Gladneys' 1970s rural community in more ways than one: he is Black.
Rather than a story of family feuds, Strange Flowers is about how this unconventional family grows together as Paddy, Kit and the wider community take Alexander firmly into their hearts.
“I know these people and this place well,” Ryan, 44, tells me over Zoom, with a strong lockdown beard visible.
“I knew how North Tipperary would have looked in the 70s and 80s, how people spoke and how they thought. And I’m pretty sure I know how Alexander would have been welcomed in that community – the welcome would have been really warm.”
Not that Alexander’s experience is without prejudice. He encounters racism – “people saying terribly inappropriate things, without realising they were being inappropriate” as Ryan puts it – and has to work hard to assimilate, including joining the local hurling team. As with Farouk, the Syrian refugee who was a principal character in his last novel, 2018’s From a Low and Quiet Sea, Ryan uses the perspective of an outsider to explore his homeland with fresh eyes.
But despite this storyline – which Ryan says was partly inspired by his horror at the unfolding Windrush scandal – the tension in Strange Flowers never arises from the places you most expect. It is Moll’s distant and secretive nature, and the Gladneys' ambiguous relationship with a wealthy neighbouring family who owns their land, which provide the novel's greatest intrigue.
Ryan is often described as a rare novelist who delights fans of literary and commercial fiction in equal measure. While that’s a distinction that has always existed more in the mind of critics than readers, there is something wonderfully balanced about his novels, which have twice been longlisted for the Booker Prize and yet read as easily and beautifully as the best popular fiction.
Strange Flowers, like Ryan’s previous work, is made up of short chapters and weighs in at a fairly lean 220 pages overall. (“God, it’s hard to justify writing a very long book,” he tells me. “You have to be nearly the best writer in the whole world to ask a reader to give you that much of their time and energy.”) And yet it never feels that way, because Ryan’s writing is so lyrical and expansive, full of rich ruminations and the kind of arresting, effortless nature writing that can only come from someone with a true affinity for the countryside. Somehow the story spans three generations of a family in the time it would take a lesser writer to clear their throat.
It is also, Ryan says, his most personal book yet.
“I wrote the first draft a few months after my father passed away,” he says. “He died pretty suddenly and unexpectedly, so I was in kind of a fog of grief. I guess writing it was an oblique confrontation with that.”
Paddy, who acts as the emotional centre of the Gladney family and the novel, is a huge character – stolid but compassionate, hardworking but mischievous. He is, Ryan says, a composite of his own father and other figures he looked up to as a child.
“When I was a kid, I had no idea what ‘working class’ meant,” he says. “I thought my Dad was the boss of this farm he worked on, the guy who told people when to plant their crops and cut their hay, because he had such an air of authority about him.
“Then one Saturday I saw the lady of the house give him a wad of cash, and thought: hold on a second, why is she giving him money? And it crashed on top of me, this fact that he worked for them.
“It didn’t diminish him at all in my eyes,” Ryan says, but it was his first awakening to the power dynamics of class and land ownership which often form a backdrop to his novels.
Ryan tells me another touching story about his father, which has definite parallels in Strange Flowers. When Moll and Alexander’s son Joshua grows up to be a frustrated writer – very much, Ryan confirms, a portrait of the author as a young man – Paddy clumsily encourages his grandson’s nascent talent. Ryan’s own father did the same.
“When I was in my twenties, I wrote a lot of awful poetry and stories,” Ryan says. “My dad used to drive to my apartment in Limerick City and do these raids on all my works in progress, because he knew I was going to burn them if he didn’t. He kept this huge box of prose and poetry from my younger years safe in the attic for years.
“One day it was accidentally thrown into a skip when there was a clear-out at home. And then I was offered a huge amount of money for my archive. I remember his eyes filled up with tears when I told him. He was distraught. I wish I hadn’t said anything!”
Reading Strange Flowers as the work of an author dealing with grief lends even more poignancy to its depiction of family life which, for all its secrets and guilt and tensions, is where our better qualities first stir. Alexander beats the odds and makes a success of life in Ireland because of the love he experiences in his family in Notting Hill. Moll and Joshua, for all their troubles, carry the strength of Paddy and Moll into their own challenges. More than anything it’s a novel about the often unacknowledged debts we owe to the soil in which we grow.
“I only have one clear memory of writing the first draft,” Ryan says of that painful time.
“It was one of the very last scenes, and it felt almost as though my Dad was whispering the words to me. It just spilled out onto the page, and it’s pretty much unchanged even now.
“When I heard those words in my ear, I thought: I’ll do it Dad, I’ll push away this terrible grief and get through it.”
Strange Flowers is out now in Doubleday hardback, on ebook and audio.