District with the downturn blues
Eileen Battersbyreviews The Spining Heart by Donal Ryan Doubleday Ireland/Lilliput, 156pp, £10.99
Lives undone by the economic disaster fill the news pages and may well be too close to personal daily experience to encourage any interest in reading fictional variations on a reality now shared by so many. Donal Ryan’s precise and evocative debut, which could as easily have taken the form of a script or a screenplay, not only tells the individual stories of a group of characters inhabiting the margins of smalltown and rural Ireland – the two are not quite the same – but also looks at a society in turmoil. An admittedly familiar picture emerges.
Here is an Ireland of half-built housing estates and broken promises as well as disgruntled youth contemplating Australia rubbing shoulders with the despairingly middle aged. Filling the role of bewildered local hero is Bobby Mahon. Regarded by some as a safe pair of hands, for a young single mother on whose incomplete house he is working he is an unsuspecting object of lust and eventually becomes a source of gossip. Yet the emotionally vulnerable though physically imposing Bobby remains a battered fragment of old-style honour.
That sense of honour sustains this remarkable book, which could easily have developed into little more than a timely polemic. Instead it is a textured account of a community as it was during a brief moment of time, a summer in the very recent past, a past that is very much the present. It appears that all of the characters, however damaged or deluded they may be, still retain some semblance of goodness or, at the very least – as in the case of Frank, Bobby’s nasty father – a vague sense that such a thing endures, if only for others.
The old man continues to exist, much to Bobby’s resentment. “My father still lives back the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in. I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down. He hasn’t yet missed a day of letting me down.”
Ironically, Bobby, the central presence in the book, as he is in the community, is one of the less compelling narrators in a work of highly convincing characters. Ryan has created 21 largely distinct voices. Here are people with very specific fears and secrets.
At no time does the book fall into the easy trap of being merely a set of short stories that have been presented as a novel. The Spinning Heart is far more than a series of loosely linked narratives. The various elements fuse as one. Ryan’s attention to detail achieves an artistic cohesion that is vital and so often overlooked in far longer books that are presented as novels yet merely consist of stories, often quite lengthy, sharing scant if any connection with each other.
The individual situations described, featuring crooked employers, bullying fathers and doomed relationships in which sexual power shifts are introduced when traditional roles become undermined, may seem typical, yet the characters are not stereotypes. Vasya, a Russian, had come to work in Ireland when there was employment. He describes the physical differences he first noticed: “There is no flatness in this land . . . the horizon is close and small.”
As but one of several workers cheated by a local contractor, the colourfully named Pokey Burke, Vasya is philosophical. “I had just finished shoring the foundations of a large house that would never be built,” he recalls, when he was approached by Burke declaring: “I have great time for you, you’re a fabbeless worker . . . I know I owe you a few bob.” Ryan’s ear for speech as spoken is accurate and he often makes effective use of it. True to Vasya’s laconic delivery, Ryan allows the Russian to remark in passing, as if giving evidence in a courtroom. “I don’t know what fabbeless is.”