From a Low and Quiet Sea

From a Low and Quiet Sea

by Donal Ryan


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A moving novel of three men, each searching for something they have lost, from the award-winning and Man Booker nominated author Donal Ryan.

For Farouk, family is all. He has protected his wife and daughter as best he can from the war and hatred that has torn Syria apart. If they stay, they will lose their freedom, will become lesser persons. If they flee, they will lose all they have known of home, for some intangible dream of refuge in some faraway land across the merciless sea.

Lampy is distracted; he has too much going on in his small town life in Ireland. He has the city girl for a bit of fun, but she's not Chloe, and Chloe took his heart away when she left him. There's the secret his mother will never tell him. His granddad's little sniping jokes are getting on his wick. And on top of all that, he has a bus to drive; those old folks from the home can't wait all day.

The game was always the lifeblood coursing through John's veins: manipulating people for his enjoyment, or his enrichment, or his spite. But it was never enough. The ghost of his beloved brother, and the bitter disappointment of his father, have shadowed him all his life. But now that lifeblood is slowing down, and he's not sure if God will listen to his pleas for forgiveness. Three men, searching for some version of home, their lives moving inexorably towards a reckoning that will draw them all together.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143133247
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/17/2018
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 283,546
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Donal Ryan is the author of The Spinning Heart, The Thing About December, A Slanting of the Sun, and All We Shall Know which have all been published to major acclaim. The Spinning Heart won the Guardian First Book Award, the EU Prize for Literature (Ireland), and Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards, and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Desmond Elliott Prize. Donal holds a Writing Fellowship at the University of Limerick. He lives with his wife Anne Marie and their two children just outside of Limerick.

Read an Excerpt

Let me tell you something about trees. They speak to each other. Just think what they must say. What could a tree have to say to a tree? Lots and lots. I bet they could talk for ever. Some of them live for centuries. The things they must see, that must happen around them, the things they must hear. They speak to each other through tunnels that extend from their roots, opened in the earth by fungus, sending their messages cell by cell, with a patience that could only be possessed by a living thing that cannot move. It would be like me telling you a story by saying one word each day. At breakfast I would say it, the word of the story, then I'd kiss you and I'd go to work and you'd go to school and all you'd have of the story is that single word each day and I would give no more until the next day, no matter how you begged. You'll have to have the patience of a tree, I'd say. Can you imagine how that would be? If a tree is starving, its neighbours will send it food. No one really knows how this can be, but it is. Nutrients will travel in the tunnel made of fungus from the roots of a healthy tree to its starving neighbour, even one of a different species. Trees live, like you and me, long lives, and they know things. They know the rule, the only one that's real and must be kept. What's the rule? You know. I've told you lots of times before. Be kind. Now sleep, my love, tomorrow will be long.

He stopped on the short landing and watched her through the cracked door, shifting in her sheets to find the most comfortable way of lying. He could hear gunfire from the east,

beyond the town, short of the front line, and he wondered if the

shots were being fired in celebration, or in anger, or in tribute to some fallen warrior. He wondered if his daughter believed his lie - that the gunfire was the noise of a great machine that was being used to frighten birds away from crops. It was for the birds' own good, he'd told her: they'd gorge themselves till they were sick if they were let. He could hear her whispering to herself, or to her teddies and her dolls, ranged along the bed's edge, questioning: Could that be true, what Daddy said? That trees can talk to other trees? It must be true, or else he wouldn't have told me. I don't know if I'll tell my friends. Maybe I'll just keep it for me and all of you, and we can think about it just ourselves, and dream about it, maybe. Well, goodnight, babies. And she whispered each of their names in turn, and settled in the semi-dark, and there were only the sounds of the cicadas, and her breaths, and in the far distance another series of crackling bursts, like dry leaves underfoot fragmenting to dust. And the memory stung him again, so sharply this time that he almost sighed aloud, of how he'd hoped and prayed to God that she'd be born a boy. The moon was visible in the skylight above the landing and the stairs were drenched in its sickly light, and he felt a sudden hatred for it, the dead thing that circled one-faced and tide-locked above the earth, feeling nothing.

Martha was sitting at the dining table, her forearms extended along its heavy wooden top, her fingers stretched, a mug before her, her face tilted towards the steam that wisped from it, her eyes closed. He thought of how she'd sat in just that spot weeks before and spoken animatedly to a strange and dangerous man, how she'd smiled at him and laughed at things he said, a laugh calculated to please the man, to reassure him she was well disposed towards him, that she

believed the things he said, the reasons he gave for doing what he did. Farouk had watched their interaction through the garden window as he'd smoked with the man's companion, a stick-thin youth of maybe twenty, with blemished skin beneath his patchy beard, the marks of pimples, of acne, the scars of the threshold of manhood. She'd wanted to speak to the man in charge, to get a sense of him, to see if he had solidness, a kind of ballast to his bearing. She was doing her best, he knew, to ease her terror, so she wouldn't opt to stay, to see if they could sit it out, this strange confluence of opposing certainties, this tiny Armageddon. The thin youth had sat in silence, looking now and then from the garden through the window towards his boss and the beautiful woman to whom he was speaking, and back to the woman's husband, and he'd grin, and raise his eyebrows, and exhale the smoke of his cigar-ette upwards in a thin stream, and nod, smiling, in approval, or reassurance, or just to be doing something, to mitigate the awkwardness somehow, the stilted silence that hung between them; it was impossible to say.

He had hated his wife in that moment, though he couldn't say for certain why. Because she was so able, maybe, to converse with a man so unknowable, a man whose word, he knew, could not be taken as truth. He felt humiliated, sitting outside his own house, on a stool beneath an olive tree, nodding back and forth with an idiot, inhaling foul tobacco simply because it had been offered to him and he'd been reluctant to appear cold or indifferent. He wasn't sure of himself: he wasn't able even to walk without considering his gait, the sureness of his step, whether his bearing seemed manly enough, whether his

handshake was firm enough, without being so firm as to represent a challenge to the strangers, transmitted through their fingers and their palms. And he'd been careful to look away first once the greeting was done, and down at the ground between them, and this small act had caused a diminution in him, a terrible contraction.

He wanted her to stand in front of him and bow her head and lower her eyes and beg for his forgiveness, for closing out the deal he'd made, for taking the envelope of money from the shelf above the stove, for counting out the notes in little piles along the table, while he sat and smoked with a gurning boy, a sap-filled, leering youth. She'd gone too far: she'd only been meant to speak to him of her fears about the boat, to ask him of its type and provenance, and the size and experience of its crew. They'd agreed she would do this without him, so she'd be free to take liberties in her interrogation; if he was present he'd be obliged to rebuke her for speaking so volubly and insolently - they had no knowledge of the sensibilities of these people, of the way they might take things. And so he'd said to the one in charge, as they'd shaken hands in the doorway: My wife is afraid of the crossing, of the sea. She's never sailed before, but she has researched these matters. Perhaps you might allow her some technical details of the craft and of the course of our voyage, and of the skill of the crew, just to

smooth the first part of our journey, to get us without drama

to the port, you know how it is. And his mouth dried as he spoke the words, and the thick-limbed man laughed softly, and a light in his eyes danced, as he said, Of course, my friend, I know how it is.

His breath caught now as he thought of it on the moonlit staircase as he descended, slowly, as quietly as he could, towards the soft billow of his wife's blouse where it moved in the delicately shifting air in and out from her skin, and a million prickles broke along his brow and down his neck and back and front, and down along his arms and legs to his feet and hands as his blood quickened and his heart beat in time with his clenching fists.

His wife stirred as he reached the lowest step, and she turned her head so her chin rested against her shoulder, and her face was tilted towards him but her eyes were fixed on some point far away, and he found himself checking her face and her eyes for evidence of tears, shed already or about to be shed, and he realized suddenly that he'd been hoping to see evidence of tears, of some kind of erosion of her alien strength, her seemingly unshakeable confidence in the rightness of their actions.

The war had come slowly, had accreted around them rather than exploded at their door. The police had turned to a militia. The town had filled with strangers armed with guns. A flogged woman was thrown one early evening from the back of a lorry onto the ground outside the hospital. She was bleeding heavily and her clothes were wadded and matted into the wounds on her back. There was a sign around her neck saying ADULTERESS. She was no more than twenty and one of the nurses seemed to know her, because she was crying as the semi-conscious woman was lifted into the hospital on

a sheet, and she tried to straighten the arm that dangled

at a strange angle from the makeshift gurney, broken perhaps in the fall from the high flatbed of the lorry, and the nurse was saying, O cousin, O cousin, what did you do? And one of the men who'd thrown the flogged woman from the

lorry climbed down from the flatbed and walked towards

the hospital entrance and addressed the people standing there. He spoke slowly and falteringly in Arabic, in a foreign accent, saying, This woman's life was spared because a fine was paid by her family. She is not to be touched by a man. If there is no woman doctor a nurse can be instructed through an open doorway from another room. From this day forward there will be two hospitals, one for men and one for women. The women's hospital will be set up in the school. Boys will be

instructed elsewhere. Girls will stay at home. The man's face was red where it was not pasty white; his cheeks were puffed and his eyes were small and bulbous behind round spectacles; he wore a combat uniform and a rifle was slung on his shoulder and a long, curved knife like a scimitar was sheathed on his hip. He was German, Farouk guessed. He couldn't look away from him, this blotched, exotic specimen, this convert, filled to bursting with moral rectitude, with excitement at his new station, at the dream he was living. The fat German turned away and two of his comrades took an arm each and hoisted him back up on the lorry's bed and they were gone in a plume of dust.

She'd lost a third or so of the blood of her body and stock was running low. A senior doctor advised that the wounds be cleaned and sutured and salved with antibiotic cream and that she be hydrated and nourished and allowed to regenerate her own blood; she wasn't in dire need. The only female doctor in the hospital was nearly seventy and unused to dealing with wounds of this nature; this was a small and prosperous town, gout was a problem, and certain cancers were prevalent, and most people died of old age. We'll have to do as they say, she told Farouk that evening. We'll have to set up in the schoolhouse, starting now. This patient can't be left here, and almost all the other female patients can be discharged or walked to the new building, and we'll pray to God to keep us from the centre of the storm. If we're faced with heavy casualties we have no hope. The flogged woman moaned softly and the nurse who was her relative put a wet towel to her forehead and then to her lips and she shushed her and said, Rest, cousin, and be quiet. Don't cause us any more trouble. Your wounds are already half healed.

And so the hospital divided its patients and its staff, and Farouk and the other doctors awaited the tide, and whenever he was able to he drove to the schoolhouse with whatever supplies could be spared. The women's hospital was bare, save for a row of low cots made from timber salvaged from the desks of the school. The female doctor and her two frightened, defiant nurses gave him a list of medicines and equipment they required each time he visited and all he could say was, I'll see. Maybe you could ask the Red Cross. But the fighting hadn't reached their town, only extended now and then in sorties from the south; it was a base from where the rebels launched

attacks and regrouped afterwards, and the men's hospital had to treat the rebel casualties. And one of those evenings he

had walked back to his car to find a strange, dark-eyed, heavyset man resting against it, who had said: I will get you and your wife and your daughter to Europe.

Here are the things that are known about you to the strangers in this town. Your wife does not cover herself. Her mother is a Christian from the north. Your father was some kind of apostate. You yourself are not observant and your home is unclean and your daughter is Westernized. He began

to protest but the man dismissed this, saying, It's nothing to me, my friend. I don't believe in God. If He exists He has nothing to say to me nor I to Him. If ever I'm faced with Him I'll shrug my shoulders and say, I did what I did, you do what you must do. My business is transporting people from danger to safety. I believe in life, and I believe in making money, so that I may continue my work. I am an honest man. If you stay here your daughter will be taken as a bride for some so-called warrior and she will be raped. Your wife will be raped. You will be used until they have no more use for you and then

you will be killed. Farouk knew that this man was in the business of fear, of extorting money from people and taking

the guise of a saviour, but he well knew the truth that was buried in the man's exaggerations.

He felt foolish now as he remembered how he had searched the stranger's face and eyes as he had spoken, how he had

tried to listen beyond what was spoken for the truth of him. How he had felt a childish pleasure when the trafficker had changed his tack from fear to flattery, asking him how it was to be a doctor, to be a man so educated and respected; how he had been touched when the trafficker had declared that if he ever had a son, and the boy grew up to be a man like him, a doctor with a beautiful wife, he would feel all his days had been worth living; he would die without regret. He remembered how he had revelled in the approbation of this thickset stranger, this dealer in flesh, how he'd been lulled and wooed by his softly wheedling voice, by the suggestion that the world somehow needed him more so than other men, that his wife and daughter had some claim above others on salvation.


Excerpted from "From a Low and Quiet Sea"
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Copyright © 2018 Donal Ryan.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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