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Book Buzz: All We Shall Know

Book Buzz: All We Shall Know

Book Buzz: All We Shall Know

Every writer knows that creating a powerhouse opening paragraph is key to engaging the reader so that he or she will be eager to see what comes next. In Donal Ryan’s gritty, brooding All We Shall Know, the first two sentences sealed the deal for me:

Martin Toppy is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child. He is seventeen, I’m thirty-three.

All We Shall Know

The story is narrated by schoolteacher Melody Shee, a flawed yet sympathetic character whose marriage has been marred by abuse and deceit. While tutoring the vulnerable and illiterate young Martin Toppy, she seduces him. She confesses to her husband Pat that she met someone on the Internet and is pregnant, causing him to storm out amid a torrent of verbal abuse.

Melody yearns for Martin and secretly spies on his home, but shortly after their encounter he and his family leave abruptly for an unnamed destination. Scorned by Pat’s family and the townspeople who are disgusted by her infidelity, Melody is alone until she meets Martin’s cousin, 20 year-old Mary Crothery, an outcast like her. Melody is entranced by this waiflike child woman, and an unlikely friendship develops.

Each chapter in All We Shall Know is numbered by the week of Melody’s pregnancy. Unable to carry a pregnancy to term before, she is awed by the life growing inside her but haunted by transgressions in her past.  She is consumed with guilt about her best friend from high school, a girl she loved but ultimately betrayed in a horrifying way.

Incidentally, I had never heard the term “Traveller” and wondered what it was in Irish culture. In an interview, Ryan explained what a Traveller is:

Q. The father of Melody’s unborn child is Martin Toppy, a Traveller boy. For those who may be unfamiliar, can you describe Traveller culture and explain why you chose to write about this particular marginalized group?

Ryan: Irish Travellers number around 30,000 in this country, but they have a substantial diaspora. They’re a nomadic people with a distinct language, Shelta, an English-based derivative dialect of which is still in use called Cant. Up until recently, official Ireland has pursued a policy of integration: it was commonly believed that Travellers were ‘set on the road’ during the Great Famine, having been cast from their smallholdings and labourers’ cottages. Recent research shows their origins are pre-Celtic, that they may be ‘the original Irish’ and that they travelled the roads long long before the famine. Unfortunately, we’ve always been afflicted with strict stratification of ‘classes’ in Ireland—we hadn’t the wit or the vision or the strength or the will as a young nation to stamp on the idea, to break the hegemony of so-called ‘middle-class respectability’ propagated and perpetuated by the clergy and ‘the professions’. Travellers came to be seen as a type of underclass, a problem to be solved. Fortunately they’ve very recently been recognised officially as an ethnic minority. Travellers tend to marry young, to have large families, and to be deeply spiritual. Traveller society is riven with strife: their life expectancy is far blow the national median, their suicide rate is terrifyingly high, and their relationship with the settled community is often fractious. I based the character of Martin Toppy on a Traveller I worked with in a factory over twenty years ago and the character of Mary Crothery on a Traveller girl I once kind of knew, who told me she’d been cast out from her family: she still lived in their compound in a local halting site, but, she said, “there’s none of them talking to me.”

As Melody navigates pregnancy, abandonment and regret, she ultimately finds resolution and makes choices that surprised me at the end.

Ryan, an award winning author and nominee for a Man Booker Prize, has a mesmerizing, lyrical writing style, evoking so much emotion through his spare but lovely prose. A testament to Ryan’s talent is his ability to authentically capture Melody’s internal monologue even though he is obviously not a woman. Although not well known (yet) in the USA, Ryan is recognized abroad as a gifted new voice in fiction.

This is a slim volume, less than 200 pages, one that could be completed in one sitting. I willingly let myself be transported into Ryan’s world, and did exactly that.


One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of All We Shall Know. Please leave a comment below and a winner will be randomly selected. USA addresses only, please.


I received a copy of All We Shall Know from Penguin for an honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write.

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