No 717 The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

41.Donal Ryan-The Spinning Heart

You can kind of lose yourself very quick, when all about you changes and things you thought you always would have turn out to be things you never really had, and things you were sure you’d have in the future turn out to be on the far side of a big, dark mountain that you have no hope of ever climbing over

The 21 narrators of Donal Ryan’s brief yet consuming debut novel The Spinning Heart have all lost themselves. Their community is fractured, in shock. All have been affected whether directly or indirectly by the collapse of the local building firm, the vital beating financial heart of the village. Company boss Pokey Burke has skipped town and the Celtic Tiger is a distant memory. The book opens with Pokey’s foreman Bobby Mahon who is ‘filling up with fear like a boat filling with water’ and closes with Bobby’s wife Triona noting that ‘People are scared, that’s all. I know that’.
Like one of those sliding jigsaws, Ryan gives the reader all the pieces of the story, but it is up to us to put them together and see the bigger picture. We hear from builders who don’t know where the next pennies are coming from, young people contemplating leaving for Australia, a young solicitor who has been put on part-time hours but with added duties like cleaning the toilets and a child who mimics her parent’s pain and anger which she cannot possibly understand. We even hear from a ghost. Ryan creates a powerful sense of place in this shared oral history. He looks back to those archetypes of Irish literature – the drunken Irish father, the town ‘bike’, the boy who’s ‘not all there’ and creates vivid, rich characters, often in the space of a few pages. With each story, we learn about someone new, while gaining perspective on the other characters and the town as a whole.

The use of idiom and clarity of narrative voice recalls the work of Conor McPherson and indeed there is a sense of theatre, of performance in this novel, as each character hides their true feeling to all but themselves and us. Even Seanie, the hard-nosed builder, who yearns for simpler times when his swagger could pull him through, can’t reconcile what he feels with how he knows life to be,

A few times lately my hands have been wet when I’ve taken them away from my face. No fucker knows that though, nor never will. I’ll be grand in a while. I have no right to feel like this

Each narrator in The Spinning Heart is wounded, both by the collapse of the economy and by other internal conflicts that are thrown into sharp focus by the pain and disappointment of the financial crash. From violent fathers to schizophrenia and lost children, the stories echo down the past and that past is never far away. Everything has changed but the town is stuck, literally and metaphorically, spinning like the metal heart on Frank Mahon’s gate to be blown this way and that with nowhere to anchor itself.

Image courtesy of the Irish Examiner
Image courtesy of the Irish Examiner

Everyone is trapped. Réaltín, a young attention hungry single mother lives in a ‘ghost estate’ trapped by a mortgage too big to manage and a house no one wants to buy,

There are forty-four houses in this estate. I live in number twenty-three, There’s an old lady living in number forty. There’s no one living in any of the other houses, just the ghosts of people who never existed. I’m stranded….

Réaltín’s father, in a poignant act, mows all the lawns of every house in his daughter’s street, trying to create the ordinary out of the extraordinary. A girl gives a young boy, Rory, her phone number and he talks himself out of contacting her because he knows,

It’s there for me and I won’t take it. I’ll stay at home and watch Coronation Street with the parents, thinking about how thinking about things can stop you living your life

Rory is trapped in his own insecurities, just as the ghost of Bobby Mahon’s father is trapped in his farmhouse, thinking about the things he never faced when he was alive,

I wonder how it is I was able to do to Bobby exactly what was done to me, even with my useless hands bound by cowardice. I wonder how I will ever be reconciled to myself

It might not sound like it, but there is a plot here, featuring a kidnapping and a murder and the structure of the novel allows the story to build up momentum with each telling, while at the same time stopping short just before things spiral out of control. No information comes to us first hand, the major plot points happen off stage as it were, and the reader becomes another resident of the town, piecing together what we can from hearsay and opinion. What is of main importance is how democratic pain can be. The middle classes have been affected as much as the workers, the tentacles of the crash reaching out to builders, teachers and even solicitors as each domino collapses on the next.
In the end though, The Spinning Heart is also a love story, as it is in many ways the story of Bobby and Triona whose monologues bookend the novel. Bobby has been silenced all his life by his father and even when, in awful circumstances, he should speak out, all he can say is ‘I don’t know’. But in Triona he finds a safe haven.

You can say things to your wife that you never knew you though. It just comes out of you when the person you’re talking to is like a part of yourself

Triona knows how hard it is for Bobby to share, she knows how it hurts,

But it was always too far down in Bobby for it not to cut and wound on the way out

And so does Ryan. He draws meaningful, lyrical testimony from his characters, showing us the deepest parts of them, the parts they have kept hidden, whether they be funny, banal, painful or poignant and he explores how external forces push us to look deep within and try and face up to what we find.
What we’ll find, Ryan seems to say is love. As Triona says at the end of the book,

What matters now? What matters only love?

Indeed. This is a beautifully written novel which has a compassion and honesty that left my heart spinning. I urge you to read it.

Read On: iPad
Number Read: 30
Number Remaining: 716

20 Books of Summer Irish Literature The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

24 Comments Leave a comment

  1. 21 narrators, wow, that looks like an interesting read – another good read, you’ve posted by the way. You must have a great collection. I can sense a book coming along yourself when you’ve finished them all. Good luck.


  2. Great review, Cathy. I liked this book very much, although some voices worked better than others for me. When I think back, Realtin, Bobby and Triona were the characters that remained in my mind.


    • Yes, I’ll be interested to see who is still ‘with’ me in a few weeks when it’s not so fresh. I was really affected by the mother who had lost her child in the drowning accident and his uncle who was there when it happened.


  3. This book was fantastic. I read it a couple of months ago and he has another one being release soon in the US, which I want to read, but part of me doesn’t want to deal with a depressing book at the moment (perhaps, not summer reading material?).


  4. I’ve read a lot of reviews of this one, it’s got a lot of attention (though deservedly so from the sound of it). I hadn’t seen the murder mentioned before though. Does that work? It seems slightly out of place, economic dislocation and the chaos it brings is something all too many of us can relate to, murder seems more something from the tv. Did that bit work for you?


    • Actually, the murder (which is low key, as murders go) didn’t grate at all. The child abduction storyline is probably less sucessful. Or maybe just the combination of both stretches credibility. The book benefits from not telling the reader about these things in the first person.


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