I was gifted a free eARC* of this book by the publisher, via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
*eARC: electronic Advance Review Copy
Title: Strange Flowers
Author: Donal Ryan
Publisher: Transworld Publishers
Release Date: August 27th
Genre: Literary Fiction
TWs: Racism, sexual assault.
Strange Flowers opens with the disappearance of Moll Gladney, a 20-year-old woman from Ireland. Her parents, Kit and Paddy, are naturally distraught, and the loss of Moll is the focus of the first part of the novel. 5 years later, Moll returns, having had no contact with her family from when she walked out one day until the moment of her return. Donal Ryan explores loss, love, redemption, family and isolation through this touching book.
I read this book in a day. Partly because it’s not that long (around 250 pages), but also because I found it really engaging stylistically. Moll, whom the book centres around, is a really interesting character. She comes across as a very private person, and even towards the end of the book it still feels like the reader is trying to work out the puzzle of Moll. The other characters that comprise Moll’s family seem a lot more open which made for some interesting dynamics. The reasons for Moll’s disappearance, and what happened in that five year period are discovered in pieces, with Moll forced to reveal more as elements of her past return and she is forced to be honest with her parents.
While I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, midway through the book there is a time/perspective jump. The protagonist in this section is Joshua, Moll’s son. While he was an interesting character, his plot line didn’t really engage me in the same way I was engaged in Moll’s plotline, and I lost interest a bit around this point. Fortunately, the perspective does return back to Moll towards the end, and we finally learn the pieces of the puzzle that make her disappearance make sense, and I started to enjoy the book properly again when the perspective flipped back to Moll. This final section was the most moving for me. The family have experienced a lot of loss since the jump in time, and there’s a very moving exploration of loss, love, and identity in this final section.
As I mentioned, I lost interest a little bit in the middle section, which I think was partly an issue with pacing as well as not engaging as much with Joshua’s plotline. Overall, the book is fairly slow paced, but just as I’d felt as though the pacing was picking up and we were starting to settle into the characters’ lives, the reader is thrown into a new setting with a new character, and the pacing drops again. Perhaps as a result of the slow middle, the ending felt rushed by comparison, though I don’t know that it actually needed to be longer (though a little bit more would perhaps have been nice), but the change in pacing felt quite dramatic.
I think I would likely have got an extra layer from this book if I were more familiar with scripture, as there a lot of Biblical allusions throughout this novel that really mostly passed me by. Joshua’s section especially would be benefitted from a knowledge of the Bible, but there are a lot of references to the Bible throughout that were often meaningless to me. Granted, this is definitely a fault of myself and not of Ryan, but as a warning to anyone who may be thinking of picking this book up, the religious themes are very important to the story, and it isn’t necessary, but is useful, to have a working understanding of scripture.
Finally, I wanted to mention the setting. I’ve read a fair few Irish novels, and I really liked how Strange Flowers juxtaposed the rural life that Moll’s family lead to the bustle of Dublin, and the metropolis that is London. The sense of community in Tipperary came across really well, and I would’ve enjoyed if there had been a bit more about the Gladney’s rural life and their interactions with their neighbours because, while a sense that a community was strong and present was created, the interactions between this community were mostly absent from the text, making the Gladney’s feel more isolated than they really were.
Though Donal Ryan is not a new writer, this book was the first I’d head of him. His writing style is somewhat lyrical, but mostly fairly straightforward, and flows very well. The writing style was definitely a big part of what kept me engaged throughout Joshua’s section, else I think I could have lost interest in the book entirely. I would definitely give more books by Donal Ryan a go based on his characters and style, but I think the pacing and plot of this book let it down a bit for me.
This review also published on NetGalley, GoodReads and The StoryGraph.