After years of rejection, Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, a tale of the impact of the recession on the lives of people in rural Ireland, became a literary sensation. He won the Guardian First Book Award, the EU Prize for Literature and the Irish Book Award as well as being longlisted for the Booker Prize. His second novel The Thing About December was published in 2013 to equal critical acclaim and announced Ryan as a true original.
A Slanting of the Sun is his first collection of short stories, which owes a lot to his previous two novels, featuring as it does characters who are faced with bereavement or loneliness, disaster or deprivation. These are broken lives – ordinary people damaged by loneliness, exile or failure.
A character in Losers Weepers, a story which wouldn’t feel put of place in The Spinning Heart, with its shadow of bankruptcy and shame, says
The world is filled with unwelcome words. Insolvent. Bankrupt. Unfriended.
Many of Ryan’s characters face unwelcome words, from the young traveller girl in Trouble who realises she will always be the ‘other’, to the refugee in Grace who deals with casual racism and bigotry. In Long Puck, a Catholic Priest in Syria is faced with shifting allegiances, while a talented small town actress finds that the nickname Meryl is one of both admiration and ridicule.
Ryan may visit far flung places like Syria and Kinshasa but the majority of these stories are set in the rural Ireland of Limerick and Tipperary, where decent people face adversity with stoicism and downtrodden acceptance. This is a world where
The houses of this road are strung with sorrow, like rows of old houses anywhere. A map of loss plotted all down it.
If only the characters in these stories had a map as they move through life ‘into the cold arms of the waiting years’. Instead there is a pervasive sense of loss and grief, a guilt for bad decisions made and a mourning for chances missed. In The Passion, a young man who killed his girlfriend through dangerous driving tries to absolve his guilt by starting an undefinable yet intimate relationship with her mother. In the brutal but astonishing story The Squad, an old man in a nursing home looks back on an incident in his youth when he took revenge on a boy who raped his friend’s daughter.
The ways of some things are set, like the courses of rivers or the greenness of grass… or the hard light of knowing in people’s eyes
In The House of the Small Big Ones, a man approaching old age muses on a time in his youth when he had the opportunity to go to Australia, only to throw it away by moving in with a woman old enough to be his mother and taking over the running of her pub. There are lost chances and lost loves and Ryan explores with a melancholic beauty the impermanence of time and the power of memory.
In Physiotherapy a woman in a care home looks back over her marriage, a past affair and the death of her beloved son and there is a sense of time bending in on itself, of everything co-existing and of a taking leave;
I’m seventy- seven and I’m twenty, my child is dead and he hasn’t yet been born, there’s a thickening of the air about me again in this day room, in this honeymoon suite and my heart is slowing and my mind is quickening…
In Tommy and the Moon, which for me is one of the most perfectly formed short stories I have ever read and the stand out story of this book, a young writer speaks of the death of his 80 year old friend in a way that perfectly captures a life in its entirety. It is a luminescent, moving and sombre story that captures all the ‘beauties of the world’ that are inherent in a single unremarkable life.
Something will always come along, he said, to light the way a little bit…a book he hadn’t read. Or a story he hadn’t heard before. Or the shiver of a leaf, or a certain lay of light along the land.
It is an unforgettable story of the small moments that sustain the spirit and it is beautifully written.
Ryan is just a confident with moments of shock and humour. Violence can burst through at any moment. In Retirement Do, an old man commits one last horrific crime to ensure he ends his days in the relative comfort of solitary confinement. The perfectly paced Nephthys and the Lark, juxtaposes a wife and mothers unremarkable daily routine of lighting candles at church and peeling potatoes for the family dinner with her mor remarkable behaviour when she goes to her evening shift as a care worker for vulnerable adults.
Some stories are too elusive to be entirely successful but what unites the collection is Ryan’s gift for language and sharp ear for dialogue. His prose is musical and moving and resonates with a deep understanding of what it means to be human. Even the smallest and most passing of descriptions shines with the joy of language. People are ‘as full as ticks with satisfaction at their own smartness’; someone who is hungry would ‘ate the arse off a low-flying duck’, while a bird’s song has ‘the cut of a young fella going to a disco’. The beauty of the writing is what brings a sense of hope to this stunning collection.
When I went to hear Donal Ryan read from A Slanting of the Sun at an event in Belfast last year, he said that he found writing short stories to be a much more intense and terrifying prospect than writing a novel. He compared it to being in a barren landscape with snipers all around, waiting to take you down if you made a misstep.
There are few missteps in this collection and A Slanting of the Sun cements Donal Ryan’s reputation as an original and exciting voice in Irish literature.