Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan review – a compassionate tale of homecoming

Five years after she went missing, a woman returns to rural Tipperary in a novel that explores all forms of love

When a young woman vanishes from her parents’ home in rural Tipperary it can mean only one of two things: “Moll Gladney was either pregnant or dead, and it was hard to know which one of those was worse.” What other reason could there possibly be for a “good little girl” to forsake the Edenic comforts of these soft green hills? Strange Flowers, Donal Ryan’s sixth novel, opens in the early 1970s, in the wake of Moll’s disappearance: an empty bed, a missing suitcase, a one-way train ticket and a vast and terrible silence. It is a perfect lure of an opening. Perhaps too perfect.

Half a decade later Moll returns as abruptly as she left, but remains tight-lipped about her departure. Her parents can’t bring themselves to ask: “No question was enough of a question, and no answer could change the truth of the moment.” Strange Flowers tells the tale of this fraught homecoming, chipping away at Moll’s hard fought secrecy. Revelations loom. But the question that hangs over this novel is whether any explanation can compete with the immaculate mystery of none at all. For as Ryan writes: an absence “is a thing that can’t be touched ... pristine and incorruptible, holy almost”.

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