The Fractured Life of Jimmy Dice: twin peaks in family saga
Ronan Ryan’s debut novel about the unlucky Diaz clan is compelling and compassionate
Ronan Ryan: dramatic twists in the story add momentum to what is an overly long book.
The Fractured Life of Jimmy Dice
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy’s famous opener from Anna Karenina seems a good starting point for Ronan Ryan’s debut novel about a family from Tipperary that suffers more misfortune than most. The Diaz family is certainly unique, with highly dramatic lives that include children dying; amputations; war; suicide; murder; rape; and a savaging by rabid dogs – much of which takes place in the fictional Tipperary town of Rathbaile.
At the centre of The Fractured Life of Jimmy Dice is the titular protagonist, the youngest son of the Diaz clan, who earned his nickname from a stroke of luck at a gambling night. That this luck later turns out to be manufactured says much about an unfortunate but brave young man seemingly bound to calamity.
Shadowing Jimmy’s life, and the intergenerational tale of the Diaz family as a whole, is his twin sister, who died at birth, choked by his umbilical cord. “All I have is my consciousness,” she tells the reader. That, and the uncanny ability to see forward and backward in time into the lives of multiple characters. It is a cunning if somewhat unartful narrative device that allows an omniscient voice tell many tales – ranging from one set in Franco’s Spain to a story of white-collar crime in investment banking.
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Written in a functional and, at times, overly directional prose style that will leave many readers wondering about the comparisons to Donal Ryan, Kevin Barry, Colin Barrett and Roddy Doyle (did the publicist just Google contemporary Irish male writers?), Ryan’s imaginative novel is full of adventure and told with compassion for his characters. If the author were female, it is the kind of novel that would be deemed “quality women’s fiction”. That term is no insult – after sharing the traumas and the occasional triumphs of the Diaz family, the reader will feel a welcome sense of catharsis by the book’s end.
The twins’ story spans the 20th century to contemporary times in a time-bending narrative that recalls the structure of Emily Woof’s superior debut, The Lightning Tree, or Kate Atkinson’s novels about the Todd family, Life After Life and A God in Ruins. In Ryan’s novel, we see Jimmy’s grandfather, Arturo, follow his brother from Argentina to fight the fascists in Spain, ending up in Rathbaile some years and a murder or two later, and settling down with a local woman.
His youngest son, Eamon, Jimmy’s father, is “as exotic as they come, and he’s exotic before it’s popular” in small-town Tipperary where 95 per cent of the population is Catholic. Eamon’s love for the troubled Grace is vividly depicted by Ryan, whose sympathy for his characters gives them vibrancy. He is equally good at rendering both male and female perspectives. Grace, a woman numb from tragedy, is particularly engaging with her back story in the America of the 1960s , where she realises “that saying yes to everything isn’t all that freeing – really, it just creates another kind of prison”.
From the kindly Eamon to the calculating older brother, Tighe, to Jimmy’s best mate, Seb, the dynamics between the male characters also ring true. What elevates the novel is Ryan’s ability to spin a yarn and continually surprise the reader with dramatic twists. These add momentum to what is an overly long book, with some details – Jimmy’s work routine, his tendency to prefer coffee over tea, a secret relationship between two of the characters divulged in a clumsy ‘reported’ style – that could have been omitted. The time shifts help to build suspense, flitting forward to future tragedies and and then back to the months or years preceding them.
Not all of the shifts are successful. A central storyline, Jimmy’s relationship in college with an Australian, is introduced too late and with a jarring narrative switch. Although Nicole comes to life in subsequent sections, the trick of looking back at their relationship after it has ended – tragically, naturally – is less effective than in earlier sequences.
Ryan is originally from Clonmel and now lives in Dublin but has previously lived in Japan, Scotland and New Zealand. He has an MSc in neuropsychology and a PhD in English literature, and he uses his knowledge to good effect in his fiction. His family saga poses interesting questions about genetics and legacy. Jimmy’s sister Elizabeth wonders if she’s destined to follow in her mother and grandmother’s footsteps. Nicole posits that it’s possible for someone’s parents to have a minimal effect on who they are, though her actions undermine this. Jimmy, for all his misfortune, takes after his kind-hearted father and is far better at looking after others than himself.
With characters that are commendably unhappy in their own ways, Ryan keeps the life-or-death scenarios for Jimmy and the rest of the clan going right until the end. Classical structure be damned, his debut is a compelling account of a family’s fortunes.