District with the downturn blues

Eileen Battersby reviews The Spining Heart by Donal Ryan Doubleday Ireland/Lilliput, 156pp, £10.99

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.”

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.