Martin Toppys is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child. He's seventeen, I'm thirty-three.
–Donal Ryan - All We Shall Know - c.2016
Melody Shee is alone and in trouble. Her husband doesn’t take her news too well. She doesn’t want to tell her father yet because he’s a good man and this could break him. She’s trying to stay in the moment, but the future is looming – larger by the day – while the past won’t let her go. What she did to Breedie Flynn all those years ago still haunts her.
Because I don’t have enough books on Mount TBR I signed up to Your Shelf and one of my three books was Donal Ryan’s All We Shall Know. I’ve never read Ryan before, but his last two books got a whole heap of good press coverage and word of mouth so I figured he’d be a good place to start.
Melody, the main character and narrator, is pregnant by Martin Toppy, a seventeen year old Traveller. A boy she was tutoring. She’s driven Pat, her husband away, they’ve spent years tearing pieces off of one another and this has been one straw too many for him. She’s alone with her unborn child and her memories. Of her best friend from childhood Breedie Flynn. Of how Pat and she got together. Of her parents and the death of her mother.
It is a novel all about the damage that people can do to one another, intentionally and accidentally.
And it is a really good read. Ryan really gets inside the head of Melody and despite the fact that she does some truly horrendous things I slowly came to understand and empathise with her, to a certain extent. Her past certainly informed who she became and why she is the way she is.
But the fact of the matter is that she did take advantage of a seventeen year old boy, would the reader be so accepting of that behaviour were the sexes reversed? She was in a position of power over him as well. Okay, so technically he is over the age of consent, but it still isn’t addressed in the book as much as it could be.
And then there is the depiction of the Travellers, and while for the most part it seems fair and balanced and the Traveller characters themselves all have depth and nuance, I still think that maybe their culture is a bit “othered”. Ryan himself says at the end that he did ask people if they thought he did a good job in depicting them, but he doesn’t seem to have asked any Travellers themselves.
But those are qualms and issues that a good book should raise, so don’t think of them as complaints about the book, instead it is a good thing that the book makes the reader consider things like these.
All in all my first “Your Shelf” book was certainly one that I enjoyed and am glad I read it.