Review: Donal Ryan 'The THing About December'
Small-town Ireland is no country for young eejits
Francie Brady, the alarming narrator of Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy, isn't quite the full shilling. The same is true of Charlie, who recounts the events in Ciaran Collins's recent debut, The Gamal. And now, in Donal Ryan's second novel, we're in the not-too-safe narrative hands of Johnsey, who's regarded by most of his neighbours as a "spastic", a "retard", a "fat eejit" and "a bit of a god-help-us".
Baleful tales told by knowing idiots: is this becoming a trend in modern Irish fiction? These books also share a setting – small-town, rural Ireland – and a supporting cast of avaricious, envious and spitefully begrudging locals against whose malevolence the hapless anti-heroes are forced to do battle, though inevitably with doomed results.
We've already met such characters in Ryan's remarkable first novel, The Spinning Heart, which was turned down by many publishers before Lilliput took a chance on it, though why its arresting qualities – honoured in this year's Man Booker Prize longlist and as the winner of the Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards – weren't recognised from the outset remains a mystery.
Located in post-boom Tipperary, that book had 21 chapters in which 21 characters told their individual, though interrelated, stories. In the new novel, though, which is set in the Tipperary of the Celtic Tiger, we're constantly in the company of 24-year-old Johnsey Cunliffe, whose adored father has passed away from cancer and whose grieving mother dies of a heart attack soon after the book begins.
This leaves Johnsey, clueless about the workings of the world, with a farm whose land has been leased to a greedy neighbour and it also leaves him with no allies except a kindly old couple. And, crucially, it leaves him at the mercy of resentful village layabouts, who one night give him such a beating that he ends up in hospital temporarily blinded.
There he meets fellow patient Mumbly Dave and alluring nurse Siobhán, who performs an act of physical kindness that probably doesn't feature in the HSE handbook, and he forms an uneasy alliance with these two when he rejoins the hostile world outside – made even more hostile when a rezoning plan that offers the prospect of wealth for various villagers is dependent on his consent to sell his farm to a property consortium, which he has no intention of doing.
All of this is told, in the third person, through the consciousness of Johnsey, whose jaundiced observations on the people around him and on life in general are often very funny, though the book's trajectory through the 12 months of the year – a chapter to each month – brings with it the increasing sense that there'll be no salvation for Johnsey.
Indeed, the ending registers as somewhat preordained.
Ryan, though, is a remarkably good chronicler of contemporary Irish life, and The Thing about December fully confirms the promise of his earlier novel.
The Thing About December
Doubleday Ireland/ Lilliput Press