Book Review

Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan

In 1973, twenty-year-old Moll Gladney takes a morning bus from her rural home and disappears.

Bewildered and distraught, Paddy and Kit must confront an unbearable prospect: that they will never see their daughter again.

Five years later, Moll returns. What – and who – she brings with her will change the course of her family’s life forever.

Beautiful and devastating, this exploration of loss, alienation and the redemptive power of love reaffirms Donal Ryan as one of the most talented and empathetic writers at work today.


I adored From a Low and Quiet Sea and was thrilled to receive a proof copy of Donal Ryan’s latest novel, Strange Flowers, to read and review ahead of publication.

It begins in 1973 when Moll Gladney leaves her house in Knockagowny, County Tipperary, one morning and doesn’t return.  No one knows where she’s gone or why she left.  For her parents, Paddy and Kit, it’s devastating.  They search for her, to no avail, and have no option but to continue their lives as best they can, caught in an awful limbo of hoping that Moll will return and yet not daring to believe that it’s possible as the years pass by.  Paddy and Kit are quite possibly my favourite characters in the novel, and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them and the situation they find themselves in. They deal with Moll’s disappearance stoically – their grief is a private thing, not to be shared with those around them and there’s a sense of pride as they try to go on as normal, despite the gossip and speculation which is inevitable in a village where everyone knows too much about everyone else’s business. 

Five years pass, and Moll returns as quietly as she left.  Paddy and Kit are delighted but curious – where has their daughter been all this time, with not even a letter to them know she’s ok?  Despite their curiosity, they’re reluctant to push Moll into explaining herself, her absence, and their heartache, hoping that Moll will explain when she’s ready.  It’s a story that is gradually revealed, and eventually the reader comes to understand why she left and where she was for those five years. Throughout the novel, I found Moll to be a distant character despite being central to it. There is a sense that she is withholding herself both from those around her and from the reader, and I found that this made me more curious as to her story. Her attitude and behaviour do make sense by the end of the novel as her situation is revealed, and while it makes her difficult to know and to sympathise with, by the end of the novel I was ready to forgive her.

Strange Flowers is a multigenerational family drama that spans several years and includes multiple perspectives. I felt that it was a little light on detail initially, but I soon found myself absorbed in the narrative as it becomes clear that Moll’s decision to leave – and her reason for doing so – will impact those around her through the years. Told in Ryan’s beautifully poetic prose, Strange Flowers is a deceptively slim volume that manages to touch upon many themes including race, grief, class, religion, and sexuality, all of which are handled with great sensitivity.  It’s a delightful novel that I heartily recommend.

Strange Flowers will be published on 20 August by Doubleday.  Many thanks to Alison Barrow for providing an early copy for review. 

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