Strange Flowers: Style and Substance

It’s tempting to frame this review as a tug of war between style and substance. No one could ever deny that Donal Ryan writes beautiful sentences. It’s such a cliche to talk about lyrical prose in a review, but in fact you could pick up this book and turn to almost any page and find a passage that rises and falls like music. I loved every second I spent on Ryan’s paragraphs.

But what of the substance? Strange Flowers opens with Paddy Gladney, a rural Irishman, mourning this disappearance of his twenty-year-old daughter Moll. They know she has left on purpose — she took a bus out of town — but they do not know why. They search for her in Dublin but she is not to be found. And so they go one with their days, Paddy farming the land that his family has farmed for generations (although it belongs to the wealthy Jackmans), Kit keeping house. And then Moll returns. She has a secret, and as the years go on, it turns out that she has more than one. But the focus of the book isn’t really on Moll; it’s on the quiet hum of an Irish village as everyone works and lives and eats and prays over the course of decades.

One of Ryan’s talents is for making the mundane come to life, to feel almost mystical. Here is Paddy clearing a cobweb:

He found a spider’s web that stretched from behind the rearview mirror down as far as the gearstick and back along to the parcel shelf, and the sun that streamed in through the space where the slats were cracked lit the thin strands of it so it shone there silky in the shard of evening light, and the size of it and the intricate detail of it and the way it spanned out so perfectly from a central point made him shiver with pleasure and wonder, and it nearly broke his heart to destroy all that spider’s good work with one sweep of his arm.

In a similar vein, late in the book another character observes men repainting lines on the highway:

One of the men is carrying a steaming bucket and the other has a metal triangle at the end of a long handle, and with these things they’re painting white diagonal lines along the side of the road, on top of the ones that are already there, faded almost fully away. The man with the teaming bucket pours hot paint into the rectangle while his comrade deftly sweeps it along so that the lines are laid down in perfect palimpsest, new on old, and the way they work is almost hypnotic.

Maybe you like this sort of writing and maybe you don’t. I posted an excerpt on Facebook and one of my friends described it as “writerly.” He didn’t intend it as a compliment. I can see that Ryan’s prose might be easy to parody. But when I was reading this book I fell into the rhythms the way I might fall into a comfortable bed at the end of a long day. While I was reading this book I woke up looking forward to picking it up again — not because I wanted to know what happened, but because I wanted to read more of Ryan’s sentences.

But then I read the book again. During my second readthrough I was more accustomed to those lovely sentences, and some of the shine was off. Now I started to think harder about the plot. And I began to remember what frustrated me about Ryan’s last novel, From a Low and Quiet Sea. First, Ryan has a fondness for unexpected shocks at the end of a novel, giving his novels the feel of a shattered stained-glass window. The twist at the end of From a Low and Quiet Sea is fairly effective. But in Strange Flowers, we have two surprises, presented back-to-back in the last several dozen pages. This is at least one too many, particularly since as a reader I felt prepared for neither.

Ryan’s deeper problem is with character. In From a Low and Quiet Sea, to my annoyance, he struggled to develop fully fleshed-out female characters. In Strange Flowers, however, even the men feel unsatisfying. Paddy and Alexander, while both lovable, are too saintly to feel real. Ellen and Kit are ciphers. Worst of all, there is an emptiness at the center of this book where Moll should be. Moll is the character who brings all the others together; without her there’s no story. But she never comes to life. She is beloved, but she is also berated (I lost count of how many times other people yelled at her); she is described at various points as “a changeling” or “like an animal.” She says of herself that there was “this monstrous thing inside me.” Ryan may intend us to read Moll’s story as tragic, the way that this normal young woman sees herself as though “the devil was stuck in me,” but I was mostly confused by it. I was never sure how she felt about anyone, or about the choices she made to leave and then to come back. The surprises Ryan throws in at the end are, I believe, intended to clarify who Moll is, but they only muddle what we already know. She does not make sense as a character; she only makes sense as a plot device.

I wrote all of this, and I read over it again, and I thought, so this book is stylish but lacking in substance. I could quote it all day long, but I have no idea what Ryan is trying to say with all those beautiful sentences. On reflection, though, that isn’t quite right. The beautiful sentences serve to imbue the world he’s depicting with a magic and a grace that a more matter-of-fact tone could never convey. That, as much as anything, is what Ryan is trying to accomplish here: to show off this world, to lend dignity to Paddy and Alexander, to polish up a little Irish town and show it off. That doesn’t make the book’s flaws less real– the shocks at the end don’t work, Moll isn’t as developed as she should be — but it may offset them. Treating this novel as a battle between style and substance isn’t the right way to evaluate it. Here, the style and the substance are one and the same.

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