Book Reviews / Irish / The Latest

A Review of Donal Ryan’s “Strange Flowers”: race and sexuality in 1970s Ireland


Donal Ryan’s book Strange Flowers sitting on a multi-coloured table.

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I find there is just something so calming about Irish writing and storytelling. Somehow, whenever I pick up an Irish author, I feel like I’m suddenly transported to a dimly lit pub, with a warm drink, and an old friend telling me a story. In many ways, Donal Ryan’s novel Strange Flowers is like that.

This novel is short, which makes it a great quick read if you are looking for something a bit easy to get through. It is an intergenerational story that starts in the 1970s in Nenagh, in County Tipperary, which is on the border with Northern Ireland. The conflict between Northern Ireland, Ireland, and the U.K., also known as the troubles, is never far from the storyline, although it never plays a major role. Instead, it centres on the Gladney family, and the novel begins when the daughter of Paddy and Kit, known fondly as Mol, goes missing.

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This novel is about all the things that families don’t say to each other. It explores the things that are left unsaid, and how that can shape ideas of identity, family, love, and home. The beginning of the novel which explores Mol’s eventual homecoming, and her relationship with her dark-skinned husband Alexander is perhaps the most interesting part of the book. I felt that it sort of lost its magic halfway through, and I felt Ryan was trying a bit too hard with the catholic metaphors (if you ask me).

One interesting aspect of the book is the handling of racism in Ireland in the 1970s. What I find thought-provoking about Ryan’s writing about race is that it feels very obvious. It feels like the kind of racism that people who are white would define as racism – overt name calling, physical or verbal abuse. When really, as we know, racism isn’t just about white individuals or groups saying and doing mean things. It is also structural, insidious, overt, and especially covert. I think that this aspect of the novel could have benefited from some black editing and reading, and also more research.

Another aspect of Ryan’s novel was sexuality. Ireland didn’t legalise samesex marriage until 2015, so you can only imagine what it might have been like for a young girl growing up in a small Irish town as a lesbian. The silence, shame, and fear around sexuality would have been palpable in Ireland at that time. The legacy of the Catholic church and Irish guilt around sexuality, marriage (including hetero-relationships) is a topic Ryan also writes about through the fictional characters of Mol, Alexander, Mol’s lover, and Mol’s son, Joshua. I feel that this topic was explored better by Ryan. But as I said before, the second half of the novel sort of let this storyline down a little.

What books are you loving from Irish author’s at the moment? Let me know in the comments. And as always, share the reading love.

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