The Thing About December, by Donal Ryan
With this unsettling study of the greed that tore us apart, Ryan is carving out his terrain and striking at the heart of Irish life
The Thing About December
Doubleday Ireland / Lilliput Press
Is there anyone in Ireland who has not yet heard the story of Donal Ryan and The Spinning Heart? Narrated by 21 victims of the property crash, it won widespread praise, garnering the Irish Book of the Year Award before being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and topping the bestseller lists. In a time when debut authors often engage in excessive self-promotion and publishers splash half a dozen endorsements on a book jacket, The Spinning Heart achieved its success through the quiet brilliance of its writing and its forensic and utterly human dissection of a national disaster.
Ryan has been open about the fact that he wrote The Thing About December before The Spinning Heart; it is published now as his second novel. This is a risky strategy. Too often, writers dust off and rewrite earlier work to capitalise on an early success. Happily, that is not the case here. The Thing About December may not be a better novel than its predecessor, but it is at least its equal. Set some years before the bubble burst, it carefully presages the manner in which the value of land becomes grossly inflated, the innocent suffer and a community that had once lived in harmony can tear itself apart through greed.
Reducing 21 voices to a more traditional third-person narrative is a sensible choice, for it’s hard to imagine the earlier conceit working twice. Instead, the novel is split into 12 chapters, each detailing a month in the life of Johnsey Cunliffe, a lonely, inexperienced young man, living without friendship or ambition in a rural setting.
From the start Johnsey is presented as a damaged loner, more comfortable at home watching The Late Late Show with his parents than navigating the political and social traumas of teenage discos. Working at the local co-op, he is forced to walk home every day past Eugene Penrose, who has bullied him since childhood and still takes great joy in taunting him.
The early chapters are filled with Johnsey’s memories – a traumatic incident involving a new jumper, the death of his father, a sense of sexual inadequacy in comparison with his peers – but he never succumbs to self-pity, imagining nothing more harmless than being left alone on the planet with “only a handful of young girls like the ones on Home and Away” for company. But when February ends, and Johnsey’s mother unexpectedly dies, a sense of foreboding builds, for here is a man who seems ill equipped to live alone, without guidance, without conversation and without love.
The descriptions of loneliness that follow in the wake of his grief are, at times, painfully moving. “Now Saturday was a day of sleeping until the middle of the day . . . going to the village for a burger and chips and hoping there’d be a dirty film on Channel 4 that night.”
The locals seem eager to help him; they welcome him into their homes, they feed him, but their motivations become suspect as we realise how wealthy the orphaned boy has become. Offers for the land are made, all couched in a concern for Johnsey’s peace of mind, and although he remains oblivious to their avaricious intentions, the reader is not.