After hearing Ariel Bissett, who is one of my absolute favourite booktubers, rave about All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan, I knew I had to read it. I ordered a copy almost immediately after hearing her review, but it took me a while to work my way through my pile of books to get to it.
“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.”
That’s how All We Shall Know begins. That first confession sets up the premise and the tone of the rest of the novel. Melody Shee is pregnant. It is not her husband’s child. It is her Traveller student’s. This story is her confession and her penitence. She is blunt.
Ryan’s fourth novel is set in a claustrophobically small town in Ireland, where everyone knows everyone’s business and where Melody can’t escape the glares of her community. A failed attempt to revisit the father of her child leads to her finding a friend and a perfect foil in the form of Traveller Mary Crothery. From the moment they meet, their stories become intertwined tales of women ostracised by childless marriages.
Melody’s story is broken into the weeks of her pregnancy. As that biological clock drives the plot forward towards an inevitable end, Melody looks back and recounts how her marriage fell apart, how she betrayed her best school friend and her relationship with her mother.
She narrates how she perceives her failures as a wife, a friend and as a daughter. But she sees this new baby as a potential redemption, just as she sees her relationship with Mary as an opportunity to right the wrongs of her past. She never takes full accountability for her mistakes, but, instead, ruminates on them. She isn’t a victim but she never sees herself as a free actor. On one hand, for me, this made her a deeply unlikeable character. But on the other, this is one of the greatest qualities of Ryan’s writing. Melody is a flawed anti-hero of her own story, she’s human. Nowhere is that more visible than in the descriptions of her arguments with her husband Pat. Their relationship is caustic and abusive but seeing it through Melody’s eyes you can see how it came to that point, you can understand it.
All We Shall Know is the first book I’ve really raced through this year. One part of that is that it’s a compact little novel. But the other is that it’s a compulsive read. It’s short chapters, it’s sense of time counting down, Ryan’s bitterly angry language and its interspersed snippets of plot all come together to keep you turning the pages. However, I will say that this book didn’t blow my mind in the way I thought it would. I found the traveller plot a little ham-fisted and stereotyped and Melody’s sudden outbursts often incongruous and shoe-horned. Those factors didn’t detract from my enjoyment but I want these reviews to be honest. If you’ve read All We Shall Know, I’d love to know your thoughts and discuss them!
SOME QUESTIONS TO PONDER AS YOU READ
- How does knowing the novel has a set timeframe, the 9 months of a pregnancy, affect your reading experience?
- Do you warm to Melody as a character, do you feel sympathy towards her? Why?
- How does Ryan create the sense of a claustrophobic town where everyone knows your business?
- What impact do the socio-economic and cultural differences of Melody and Mary have in your understanding of their relationship?
- The novel is centred on women and their relationships as mothers, as friends, as wives what difference do you think it makes that these very female interactions are written by a man?
IF YOU WANT SOME FURTHER READING TRY…
- Kevin Curran’s review for The Observer via The Guardian
- This piece in the FT by Catherine Taylor is as much an intro to the novel as it is a review – so if that’s what you’re looking for have a click
- Donal Ryan reading a little bit of the novel aloud – I always find it so interesting to hear a book read by its author to understand a bit more of how they intended it to sound
- Ariel Bissett and Estee Lalonde (two of my favourite badass ladies) talking about some girl power books including a bit on All We Shall Know
- Read an excerpt before you make up your mind
IF YOU WANT MORE BOOKS LIKE THIS HAVE A LOOK AT…
- Donal Ryan’s A Slanting of the Sun
- Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies (a previous book club pick)
- Sara Baume’s A Line Made by Walking
- Zadie Smith’s On Beauty
Why not use the All We Shall Know themed bookmark I designed to keep your place as you read? You can print and download it for free here.
As ever, let me know if you’ve read All We Shall Know, or if you have any recommendations for what I should be reading next.