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.
Matters come to a head when Eugene Penrose and his cohort deliver a beating to Johnsey so vicious that it lands him in hospital. The bitterness of the common man who watches as his neighbour grows rich – “Here’s auld Catholic Cunliffe with his big farm of land worth millions . . . and the whole fuckin parish on the dole” – reverberates as Johnsey recuperates. He’s forced to listen to the endless braggadocio of his wardmate Mumbly Dave, whose endless stream of self-regard makes Johnsey long for release. There’s a claustrophobic feeling to this section, heightened by the appearance of a young nurse, Siobhán, whose motivations in introducing her patient to the ways of the flesh are unclear.
When Johnsey returns home Dave and Siobhán become permanent fixtures in his life, vying for supremacy over him. They are despicable characters, and it’s never entirely clear why Johnsey allows them to dominate him so much. If every novel has a problem at its centre, then the problem in this novel lies here, for while Johnsey’s desperate need for friendship and sex is clearly defined, his willingness to settle for such unhappy versions of both is not.
In some ways The Thing About December is a perfect companion piece to The Spinning Heart, taking greed as its premise and recognising that we are all culpable when it comes to the crash. Ryan writes with absolute confidence, balancing emotion, surprise and ambiguity at every stage of Johnsey's fall. The novel justifies the acclaim that his debut has received, building on his examination of the tensions that lie at the heart of rural life while never feeling like an exercise in disapproval. In common with works by two other fine new Irish writers, Ciarán Collins and Gavin Corbett, he delivers a story dominated by dark introspection that unsettles the reader and permits no happy ending.
What's fascinating about Ryan's writing is the way it fits within a tradition of Irish literature while marking its own territory. In his descriptions of the conflicts between stunted young men and their domineering parents he recalls the great John McGahern; the unbalanced and troubling relationships between men and women offer shades of Anne Enright; Kevin Barry would feel proud of the often eccentric dialogue, while the traumas of the past few years are explored with the same subtlety that distinguished Claire Kilroy's The Devil I Know, the first Irish novel to dissect the behaviour that lay behind the crash.
But he is indisputably carving his own terrain with these short, fierce books that strike at the heart of what it has meant to be Irish in recent times, challenging us to examine our own failings instead of those of faceless institutions, reproving those who gambled and now cry victim. And while many others will add to the growing body of recession lit – can I coin that phrase? – Ryan’s work has set a benchmark to which other writers will aspire.
The challenge now, of course, will be for him to move away from stories of the property crash and turn his eye to other subjects. It will be fascinating to see what comes next.
John Boyne's latest book is Stay Where You Are And Then Leave.