‘All We Shall Know’ by Donal Ryan: Book Review

Melody Shee is pregnant, but her husband Pat is not the father. Martin Toppy, the son of a famous traveller, and a student of Melody’s, is the father. Pat doesn’t take it well when she tells him, and she’s left on her own to figure out how to go forward.

Trying to manoeuvre her way through small town talk and an uncertain future, she is thankful when she meets Mary Crothery, a traveller who is able to see Melody in a way no one has seen her before. Together the two of them navigate through the storm that is their lives, hoping to make it through to the other side as unscathed as possible.

Donal Ryan’s All We Shall Know is one of those pieces of fiction that manages to be heartwarming while also being intensely dark. It pulls you in from the very first line of the very first page.

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

With that introduction, we meet Melody, in all her unapologetic glory (if glory is a word that can be used to describe her). As ridiculous as it might sound considering what you know about her, Melody is remarkably honest. She never tries to hide the fact that she’s not a particularly moral person. She’s not looking for sympathy for her situation, she’s simply telling us her story, warts and all.

But despite the fact that she’s done some pretty terrible things (her best friend from school, Breedie Flynn, is testament to this), she’s still a relatable and enjoyable character to read. She is exceptionally strong in that she doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone. Despite the fact that the entire town is talking about her behind her back (and sometimes to her face) she always stands her ground and does her best to not let other people’s opinions of her get to her. She sticks up for Mary and the Travelling community when people talk about them. She is an authentic character that tells her story so well it’s easy to forget she’s not real.

But it’s not just Melody’s authenticity that show’s Donal Ryan’s grasp of real people and how they think and act. His portrayal of the Travelling community is as genuine as they come. Like Melody, his depiction is honest and unashamed. He doesn’t try to romanticise their culture, nor does he try to condemn it. He just describes it as it is. It’s a refreshing change from the way they can be portrayed in the media and popular culture and makes the book so enjoyable to read.

Mary Crothery is the tiny sliver of light that the darkness of All We Shall Know needs. She is an inherently good person who, through no fault of her own, has been admonished by her family and forced to live in a sort of exile. All she wants is to be a proper part of her family again. But despite all of this, she is cheery, and her constant awe at Melody’s father’s kindness towards her is so endearing that you can’t help but love her.

All We Shall Know is a book that will have you dying to turn the pages and devastated when it comes to the end. Donal Ryan’s writing is emotional and beautiful and I know I’ll definitely be reading more from him.

All We Shall Know is available from Transworld Ireland

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