District with the downturn blues
Probably the most unusual character is Trevor, a Montessori teacher and the son of a man with schizophrenia. “My father split in two, and then fell to pieces.” Trevor has his own problems and is obsessed with his health. “I’m dying. I’m sure of it. One day soon my heart will just stop dead.”
His mind never rests. His monologue achieves a virtuosic quality that Ryan also reaches in the extraordinary after-death speech delivered by Frank, with its harrowing image of the clever child he once was being beaten by his own father, who was outraged by the young Frank’s success in a classroom quiz.
For all the harshness of language and the often brutal experiences, The Spinning Heart is unexpectedly tender, particularly in the handling of a kidnapping with a difference or the description of a father cutting the lawns of the empty houses in the ghost estate where his daughter lives. He is driven by love but also by a concern for appearances and his frustration with the rogue developers.
In the way that Kevin Barry’s bravura comedy City of Bohane is a poignant love story, Ryan’s prism of life and lives is compellingly humane. While never matching Barry’s anarchic lyricism – which draws such wonderful effect from his jaunty prose, with its at times quasi-Elizabethan syntax, echoing Anthony Burgess’s similar flourishes in A Clockwork Orange (1962) – Ryan’s more conventional use of language, from the formal to the profane, sustains his novel of inner thoughts. These candid voices, often confessional, ensure that his novel lives though the hopes, regrets, fears and fury of battered if defiant speakers. In the recent collection Forensic Songs, by Mike McCormack, a far more experienced writer than Ryan, only one of the 12 stories, and by far the finest, The Man from God Knows Where, arrives at a similar mood to that of Ryan’s book. McCormack’s story, written in the third person, has depth and confidence. As with The Spinning Heart, it is underpinned by an awareness of community.
Earlier this year Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child made London come alive in both public and private contexts. Ryan has achieved something similar in an Irish setting. He is looking both to and beyond Marina Carr’s early plays in articulating a sense of a community’s local rather than national shared history. The Spinning Heart is rooted in place – no bad thing. But it also draws its substance from tragedies and scandals. This is an exciting, relevant and believable contemporary novel about the lost and the wounded that listens to the present without discarding either the sins of the fathers or the literary legacy of the past.