All We Shall Know
By Donal Ryan
(Transworld, €16.99 p/b)
In his new novel, Donal Ryan attempts to do something male writers essay at their peril: to write from the first person point of view in a female voice. Of course, there have been notable achievements among men pretending to be women, perhaps most famously James Joyce in petticoats as Molly Bloom. Not that the praise for JJ’s attempt has always been universal: ‘ “Yes” is what men always want women to say,’ being a favourite line of attack among feminist literary critics, highlighting the propensity for male wish-fulfillment. Then, in an instance of being shot by both sides, there is also the risk of being accused by the lads of merely wanting to score male-feminist brownie points with the ladies. All this preamble by way of suggesting that the success or failure of Ryan’s venture depends largely on how well you think he inhabits the mind and body of his anti-heroine, a diarist with the unlikely name of Melody Shee.
Melody is in a bit of a pickle, suicidally so. She tells us, by way of introduction: ‘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.’ She’s married, and husband Pat doesn’t take the news too well, even if she strives to ameliorate it by telling him the father is someone she met on the internet who she had an affair with. She’s had several miscarriages, and Pat has had a vasectomy to save her any more trouble. He moves back to his parents’.
Like Anna Karenina, like Emma Bovary, Melody is a malcontent, and chaffs under the constraints of quotidian marriage. Pat’s an ordinary guy, a hurler, an electrician, the only boy she ever kissed (until Martin Toppy). (On a pedantically realist note, Pat is described as wearing a Liverpool jersey at one point, and a Chelsea shirt a hundred pages later, which doesn’t do him any favours: as every bloke knows, you never change your team.) She’s an educated girl, she did English and History at Limerick University. They are trapped in the endless cycle of an abusive, destructive relationship.
Ryan takes a further risk by making his protagonist a not very nice person. This trait is made most manifest in how she treated her school friend Breedie Flynn, whom she initially befriended but then betrayed, because she had to get in with the cool girls in school in order to get to Pat, and Breedie wasn’t cool. It also seems a tad capricious, if not downright hypocritical, that she is put out on discovering that Pat has been going to prostitutes, when she hasn’t – as American parlance would have it – been ‘putting out’ for him herself.
Ryan’s account of Melody’s attempt to establish herself in a journalistic career illustrates how Melody’s variety of feminism does not sit well with the more herd-like elements of the sisterhood: ‘I wrote a searing article on inverted sexism as a trope in advertising. It was published in a broadsheet supplement, and when I looked at the online edition there was a stream of comments beneath it and my stomach burnt with the excitement of it all and I waded into them and saw myself being attacked and I mounted a defence of my position and I gloried in my new-found notoriety and I railed against this narrow, straitened, un-nuanced, reactionary brand of feminism, and declared myself to be a proponent of the purest from of equality, and I was so happy with myself, and I was never asked to write for that paper again.’ She is nothing if not single-minded and independent.
It’s as well that she is befriended by Mary Crothery, a young Traveller woman who has been ostracised by her own family, having been returned by her erstwhile husband’s family for the awful crime of being barren. This bond makes possible Melody’s final, moving act of redemption.
Aside from the sexual politics involved, how well you take to this book will also hinge on how accurately you think Ryan handles the representation of the vicious and violent tribalism of Traveller mores.
Believable female character or flimsy male construct? Honest portrayal of the harshness of Traveller life, or typical stereotyping of an already marginalised community? Your judgment of the verisimilitude, or even the fact that you are judging in terms of verisimilitude will, I suspect, depend on what area of the ideological spectrum you inhabit. Or, perhaps more fundamentally, on whether or not you are a woman, and on whether or not you are a Traveller.
First published in The Sunday Independent