A Slanting of the Sun by Donal Ryan review: Shining tales of rural woes
Donal Ryan evokes marginal existence in a global but very unmetropolitan Ireland, writes Roy Foster
A Slanting of the Sun
If James Joyce’s Dubliners was intended to delineate the “scrupulous meanness” of little lives in a city stuck in psychological stagnation, Donal Ryan’s ambition is to evoke the marginal or washed-up existences of people in a global but very non-metropolitan Ireland as the 21st century dawns. It is a world of bad debts, bust businesses, closed rural police stations, ghost estates, fractured families, despised immigrants: the “New Irish” feature here in more senses than one.
Though the focus periodically swings to Africa, or the Middle East, or London, the narrative drive remains grounded in Ireland: a place where people end up rather than spring from. He channels their voices with the consummate ventriloquism displayed with such panache in his novels The Spinning Heart and The Thing about December; but these short stories trace out a bleaker terrain, with fewer hopes of redemption.
When a shaft of hope lights the landscape, it invariably comes after scenes of traumatic violence: as in the title story, where an old man who has survived a night of savage robbery and sadistic murder at the family farm ends up in a care home, attended by a young man who had taken part in the atrocity. The last words of the story (and of the book) invoke “love”, but it is in short supply elsewhere. Those who look for it rarely find it, or are denied it when “given the road” by someone they have fallen for: Ryan’s ear for an authentically crackling colloquialism is as sharp as ever. A girl from a Traveller family, rescued from a scene of violence, is subtly put in her place, in a way that she will never forget. An institutionalised old man remembers the way that a revenge killing slowly poisoned his life. Care homes feature in several stories, usually in a way that savagely mocks the name. When the narrative opens into a nice shiny middle-class family day – birdsong, kids off to school, iPhones, sports dates – it turns out to be underpinned by a flip-side darkness and cruelty (featuring, as it happens, a care home).
One story targets the social-media term “unfriended”, and most of these people are unfriended, one way or another. Drugs, drink and abandonment mark the lives of most of the actors. This is not a feel-good universe. But it is admittedly and uncomfortably recognisable from the Home News pages of The Irish Times any day of the week.
There are moments when the balance tips into Irish Rural Grotesque, of the kind pioneered by Patrick McCabe: in Retirement Do, set in a town that “smells like stale milk”, the flies that hover around a zipped-up sports hold-all bode no good, and the grand guignol ending supplies a jarring note. In another story a body ends up in a freezer. Sexual transactions are invariably frustrated, furtive or exploitative. When humour breaks in, it is black. What keeps the attention is the intensity with which Ryan occupies his protagonists’ minds, and the concrete detail which accumulates in a sort of postmodern clarity, real and unreal at once. As in his novels, the calibrations of small-town life are forensically observed: the correct brand of tracksuit no less than the right or wrong side of the tracks.
The best short stories can swiftly conjure up a backstory which tells us as much about the narrator as the subject, and this regularly happens here. “Her father was Paddy Screwballs, who was left go from the buses over something only whispered about. Something not known about so it by default became something terrible, and shameful. Sure it must have been. She had one brother, a labourer, big-fisted and dark, and another brother who wasn’t all there who went down to Roscrea every day on the free bus to the funny farm and a sister who was gone years, married to an English fella. Her mother was dead a good long while, from some unnamed thing only women get.” What will happen to Meryl, the subject of this story, is a moment of small-town triumph and then a lifetime of humiliation. Within a short space, the narrative conveys volumes.
Ryan’s skill with language flicks out slang and abuse with a masterly touch, though sometimes an oddly flowery or philosophical note breaks the spell. But in general his ear is sharply attuned and his sense of irony remains mordant. Another phrase which he plays with, in a story about urban squatters, is “adverse possession”. In the world conjured up here, it seems to be the only way that anyone gets anything.
A Slanting of the Sun is published on September 24th. Roy Foster’s latest book is Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923