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From a Low and Quiet Sea
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Booker Prize for Fiction > 2018 Booker Longlist: From a Low and Quiet Sea

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message 1: by Trevor (new)

Trevor (mookse) | 1842 comments Mod
From a Low and Quiet Sea, by Donal Ryan


MisterHobgoblin From a Low and Quiet Sea is a difficult book to categorise. Is it a novel? Is it stories? Does it matter?

In this case, I think it does.

Most novels have a clear narrative arc. There is a beginning where we are introduced to characters and situations, then there is a quest where someone is looking for something, and then there's the end - usually when that something has been found (a happy novel) or irredeemably lost (a tragic novel). There will be a major plot development at exactly half way through, and mini-changes at one and two thirds of the way through. It makes for a satisfying, if somewhat predictable pace.

Sometimes great novels depart from the formula in spectacular style. But attempting this is a gamble; it can make a novel feel tricksy and badly paced. Despite some brilliant writing at the sentence level, I fear that Low and Quiet Sea is a bit of a busted flush.

Basically, we have three stand-alone stories.

Farouk is a man fleeing an unnamed war-torn country by boat in the Mediterranean. Probably Syria, but possibly Libya. This is written in a highly stylised manner, conveying an exotic culture and working as a proxy for a different values system to the anticipated reader. It feels quite like Mohsin Hamid's Exit West, but dealing with the journey as much as the before and after.

Lampy is a man who might be quite bright, but his ambition exceeds his prospects and right now he is driving a bus for an aged care facility in the West of Ireland. He lives at home with his mother and (possibly senile) grandfather and spends his time trying to find the woman of his dreams.

John is a wealthy accountant who speaks in religious tones but who seems to have had a pretty earthly life.

In each of the stories, the focus is on the character with details unfolding slowly to create a ruler picture. Each is written in a quite distinctive voice with perfect tone and a poet's attention to detail. Truly these are gems. And they represent about 80% of the book.

Then, there's a final section that follows three women - the breaks between these three sub-narratives is intentionally un-signposted. From these narratives, we see how the three male characters fit together (and they don't fit together terribly much, if the truth be told) and we see enough external perspective to make us reassess (although not completely revise) our estimation of the three male characters. This section is terribly hard to follow; the reader has to have pretty close recall of the earlier sections and hold a lot of oblique references together to really create a map of how everyone fits into the somewhat scant story.

The conclusion, at least for this reader, is that this is a work of technical brilliance and innovation, but one where the pace and balance feel all wrong. Yes it is enjoyable, but it's not that satisfying. So how do you score a book that has probably achieved the author's objectives completely, but where the author's ambition does not quite coincide with the product the reader desires? If ever there were a case for three and a half stars, this is it.


message 3: by Tommi (last edited Jul 24, 2018 12:43AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tommi | 514 comments Happy to see this novel listed too, and in some respect it is close to The Overstory. Especially in the beginning with all the tree references (which aren’t, however, developed much further than that). I’m along the same lines with MisterHobgoblin above: “If ever there were a case for three and a half stars, this is it.” My review is here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...


message 4: by Val (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val | 1016 comments Donal Ryan writes beautiful prose, but I can see why MisterHobgoblin has reservations about the structure.


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6098 comments Funnily enough I was 3.5 stars also. Will post some more detailed thoughts later.


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6098 comments My thoughts on the novel - a little similar to Mister Hobgoblin's although I felt that the individual sections were uneven - I only really enjoyed the Lampy section, but like him I agree that the intention was stronger than the execution.

The Farouk section is the most striking and topical (and I understand a departure from the Irish characters who have populated the author’s previous novels, as well as the rest of this book) but I felt it lacked authenticity and ended as a version of Exit West without the fable/fantasy element of that which I really enjoyed.

The second story was my favourite - Lampy lives with his grandfather and mother. Lampy’s Grandfather is a foul mouthed but quick witted pub wag and he and the quick tempered Lampy cannot find an escape from their adopted personas and chosen fronts to allow them any way to express their love for each other to the perpetual hurt of Lampy’s mother

The third story is the most unusual - the detailed, end of life, confession (although to who - if anyone - is not clear at all until the final section) of a violent and unprincipled “lobbyist” (effectively a mover and fixer over local government contracts and planning permission).

The final section, drawing on some minor characters including Lampy’s grandfather and a care home resident reveals how the roots of each characters story were, and continue to be, interwoven and clearly links back to the "tree" ideas at the start.


message 7: by Tommi (last edited Jul 24, 2018 04:55AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tommi | 514 comments Gumble's Yard wrote: "The final section, drawing on some minor characters including Lampy’s grandfather and a care home resident reveals how the roots of each characters story were, and continue to be, interwoven and clearly links back to the "tree" ideas at the start. "

Interesting, I didn’t quite catch that development of the tree imagery, though I’m sure you’re absolutely right (because why else does the novel begin the way it does). All the more reason to revisit it for the Booker.


Neil | 1978 comments I need some advice. I read The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December and didn’t really like either of them. I can’t get this from my library so I would have to spend money to read it and I am not sure I want to. How does it compare with the two I have read? Should I spend money on it?


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6098 comments I would suggest to wait to see if it is shortlisted.


message 10: by Hugh (new) - rated it 4 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 3368 comments Mod
I am looking forward to this one - for me Ryan's novels get better every time...


message 11: by Laff (new) - rated it 5 stars

Laff | 60 comments I've read all of his books and enjoyed each of them, including this one, but I doubt he will make the short-list. I hope I am wrong. If we don't buy the books, the authors might not write them. Last year Ryan announced that he had to return to his day job in the civil service so that he could pay the mortgage. I'm so glad he is still finding time to write.


message 12: by Ang (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ang | 1685 comments Laff wrote: "If we don't buy the books, the authors might not write them."

True, but I am not purchasing the ones I think I might not like, which is Neil's point, I think.

Having said that, so far I have purchased seven and tempted on others. My library only has Snap so far (I'm not buying that one).


message 13: by Neil (new) - rated it 4 stars

Neil | 1978 comments Laff, that’s true, but unless you have infinite amounts of money you cannot afford to support every author.


MisterHobgoblin Every now and then I think I should only buy books I actually read. Then I think how depressing it would be to live that way.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 670 comments This was the first book by Donal Ryan that I've read. I liked it and similar to others, I rated it 3.5 stars. It does have a bit similarity to The Overstory with the opening tree thing and the way the stories are connected, although it is not promoting trees or the environment. The story I liked best was the confession. The final part tied it nicely with Lampy's story. The Farouk story and how it is connected do not work as seamlessly. I think the author meant me to see more oblique connections than his being friends with Lampy's mother. My less than sterling review is here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show....


Alysson Oliveira | 85 comments I have read most of it - I still have the last part to read tonight - and I think it is fine, but I am not crazy about this book. I think I like the Lampy section most. And the first one is very fine, but I kind of got lost at some point in the 3rd one. But maybe it was me who wasn't paying attention - it happens sometimes.


message 17: by Hugh (new) - rated it 4 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 3368 comments Mod
For me the final section really lifted this book. Ryan says so much with so few words.


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6098 comments Alysson I think the final section will make the third clearer.


Alysson Oliveira | 85 comments Gumble's Yard wrote: "Alysson I think the final section will make the third clearer."

Oh!! Now things are getting more exciting! Thanks!


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6098 comments As you say a fairly brutal review, albeit I share some of his reservations about the refugee section.

But it did remind me of the quote “In a world torn asunder by the arbitrary and anxiously defended borders of statehood and masculinity…” which picks up on the increasingly common theme in the longlist of borders and boundaries - see Neil’s review of Sabrina for example, but it’s also key I think to Everything Under and Warlight.


message 21: by Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer (last edited Jul 31, 2018 03:47PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6098 comments Very insightful comments.

The book on migrant stories I would like to read is Shatila Stories


message 22: by Val (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val | 1016 comments Another book about the migrant / refugee experience is Refugee Tales.


message 23: by Hugh (last edited Aug 01, 2018 01:57AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 3368 comments Mod
I can only read the first few paragraphs on the phone but I don't have a problem with writers writing outside their personal experience. I agree with most of what Sunita says, and I enjoyed this book.

I don't really see it as a potential winner because its ambition seems limited compared with some of the others. My review


Alysson Oliveira | 85 comments I finished it last night and ended up liking it way more after reading the last part. This section is very beautiful. I also agree with Sunita, and with Hugh too, I don't see it as a winner - but I think it may make the shortlist.


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6098 comments Glad to hear the last section bought it together for you Alysson.


Alysson Oliveira | 85 comments Gumble's Yard wrote: "Glad to hear the last section bought it together for you Alysson."
Yes! Many lost things started to make sense! :)


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6098 comments Great.

I would love to see Kushner and Ryan in the shortlist as it could give rise to a fascinating question on research, where I think they take deliberately very opposite approaches.


message 28: by Neil (last edited Aug 01, 2018 11:25PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Neil | 1978 comments My third Ryan book and by far my favourite (I haven't read All We Shall Know).

Lots of cross references to other books on the long list. Starts with trees, like The Overstory. Includes stories about borders/boundaries, like Everything Under, Warlight and Sabrina (this is becoming the dominant theme as far as I can see).

Edited to remove spoiler tag: Did anyone else think John's confession which is the third story was his literal end-of-life prayer as he died?


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6098 comments Re spoiler, yes absolutely.


message 30: by Hugh (new) - rated it 4 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 3368 comments Mod
Yes, I agree too


message 31: by Neil (new) - rated it 4 stars

Neil | 1978 comments Good - thought so!


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6098 comments I have not read this for a longtime but think there are several clues that is the case.


message 33: by Neil (new) - rated it 4 stars

Neil | 1978 comments Yes, there are a couple of passages that I didn’t quite understand at first but then the penny dropped.


message 34: by Val (last edited Aug 01, 2018 03:52PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val | 1016 comments Regarding Neil's spoiler:
I thought it was too, once I read the final part.


message 35: by Paul (new)

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 9652 comments Please no spoiler markers on the MandG forum - if possible please edit posts to remove them.

House rules. They don't work for the mobile version and we assume here people have read the book, or are able to filter out spoilers themselves. (Plus, although this is a personal view, any book that can be spoiled doesn't belong on the Booker anyway).

Our role model is Mike McCormack's Solar Bones ('Marcus Conway is dead' - 'I made a deliberate decision to flag that at the beginning so it would not come as a cheap reveal at the end').


message 36: by Neil (last edited Aug 01, 2018 11:27PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Neil | 1978 comments Done - sorry. I got confused over where spoilers are allowed and not allowed.


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6098 comments And to clarify on the spoiler, my recollection of reading this some time back is that John was the dead body on Lampy’s bus?


message 38: by Neil (new) - rated it 4 stars

Neil | 1978 comments Indeed, as well as being other things relevant to the connectedness of the stories.


message 39: by Val (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val | 1016 comments Good point about the journeys Sunita.


Meike (meikereads) For me, the strength of this book was not the story as a whole, and not even the individual narrative strands; rather, I was smitten with all those little vignettes, the pristine sentences and the way Ryan captures human nature by describing particular sentiments and inner movements - those perceptions make for vivid, complex characters, and I don't even need a big story when I can look inside the heads and hearts of such deeply humane protagonists.

Here's my review.


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6098 comments One thing I will say for this book is that in a year when the judges have effectively decided to unofficially expand the eligibility criteria, it’s nice to recognise that this book is only eligible for the prize due to an official rule change (the one which succeeded due to the lobbying from Tramp Press).


message 42: by Paul (new)

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 9652 comments Very good point. Odd thing was Tramp having lobbied for the change didn't really have a strong contender.


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6098 comments I think they were hoping for Problems.


Fredzed | 2 comments Paul wrote: "Very good point. Odd thing was Tramp having lobbied for the change didn't really have a strong contender."

This book was eligible anyway because it's published in the UK by Random House. Tramp Press have nothing to do with it, they lobbied last year to have Mike McCormack's Solar Bones long-listed. And I'm sure they were hoping Problems would get a nod, it's a great book.


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6098 comments Sounds like you have better knowledge than me Fredzed

At the time the rule change was announced the public lobbying role of Tramp Press (based on Solar Bones not being longlisted in 2016, redirected winning the Goldsmith, and then giving UK rights to another publisher resulting in it being longlisted in 2017) was widely acknowledged in e.g. the BBC and the Bookseller. I was basing my second hand comments on that. Last year they gave away the UK Rights to Sara Baume's Line Made by Walking but to no avail in the Booker.

Tramp are quite an activist publisher. Their other well known campaign is refusing to accept manuscripts addressed Dear Sir....

Agree re Problems both on merit and on Tramp hoping it would make it. I recall when the rule change was announced they said they had the perfect book to submit.

And interesting re the UK Eligibility of Low and Quiet .... Still nice the Irish publisher gets the credit in its own right though I guess.


Fredzed | 2 comments Doubleday Ireland is the Irish publisher for that book, an imprint of Random House.
I was surprised Problems didn't make it, and also thought Sara Baume would appear last year.


Alysson Oliveira | 85 comments Ok, now I want to read Problems! I'll buy it next time!


message 48: by Doug (new) - rated it 4 stars

Doug Got Problems from the library, so may interrupt the Booker Marathon to read that first.


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6098 comments It’s an acquired taste. In the Eileen, Sorry to Disturb ... tradition, but I hated the first and struggled with the second, but I liked Problems.


Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6098 comments I found this quote from a 2016 interview both witty and honest. Also slightly worrying for those of us who didn't give the full five stars (sorry Donal if you are reading this via Google).

"When you are nominated for a literary prize, you desperately want to win. I think people can downplay their desire to win when they are nominated - I want to win everything, and I want every review to be five-star. I just want to have affirmation after affirmation, non-stop.

I read every review, absolutely everything. I set up Google Alerts, so if anybody mentions me, I get an alert. I'd just be lying if I said I didn't. I get really mad if I see a bad review, and I want to go and review that person's whole life - is that your house? Crap house, one star. Is that your wife? She's very ugly, zero stars. These are scenes in my head."


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