At 19, Ronan Ryan lost his soulmate and was never the same again. Her name was Anne-Laure and her tragic passing when she was 20 was just about the only thing that could separate the pair. Out of the loss, Ryan underwent a moment of fundamental self-discovery.
"I went to a cafe wanting to just write down a few memories of her," he recalls. "It was such a release. I wasn't even writing a book but six months later I had written the equivalent of one."
Penning a concrete tribute to his friend, however long it took, was all that mattered. "I knew within a few weeks of writing about her that there was a sense of, 'well this is who I am'. And then novel after novel came. But first I wanted to write something I could dedicate to her. I was all-in."
The release of his debut novel The Fractured Life of Jimmy Dice means Ryan has fulfilled that promise, and in fine style too. Brimming with affection, wisdom and texture, this coming-of-age saga announces the 36-year-old as one of the more accomplished newcomers in Irish fiction. In his own calm and considered way, he is overjoyed about this when we meet on a bitter afternoon in Dublin city centre.
"In my life, I've had about six moments that shifted how I see the world," he says. "One would be the death of Anne-Laure, one would be discovering writing, but one would be just meeting her in general. I'd never known anyone who I had more I wanted to say to. Time moved a little differently with her. The first conversation we had was about four hours long."
They met when Ryan was 17. A year earlier, he'd dropped out of school in the US (where his chemical engineer father was working) and enrolled in school back in Dublin. After meeting Anne-Laure, however, he dropped out again to spend more time with her. After her death, he completed his Leaving Cert by learning the curriculum by himself.
There is another of those six key moments that found its way into …Jimmy Dice, and it involved another woman central to his life. It occurred when Ryan's family lived in Japan (one of nine countries he has lived in since his family left Clonmel when he was 13).
His older sister Carolyn was in boarding school in Kobe further south from the family home in Nagoya. One January morning in 1995, Kobe was struck by a savage earthquake that claimed 6,434 lives. While uninjured, Carolyn developed severe PTSD.
Some time later, Carolyn was hit with another "random life blow" when she contracted chronic Lyme disease. Ryan remembers a "nightmare of brief periods of remission" followed by years of "relentless" painful, light-sensitive confinement in a dimmed bedroom". It made him consider fragility, mortality and the hands life deals you, but also "how you approach adversity".
"My sister didn't despair even though her experiences pushed her to the absolute limit of what she could endure. She continued to fight. So between that and Anne-Laure, it added to my seize-the-day pursuit of writing."
In person, Ryan comes across as measured, meditative and unflappable. He lists off the countries he's lived in, adding dryly that he counts England and Scotland as two countries "to keep the stats up". He rhymes off his academic comings and goings ("half a master's" in cognitive and clinical neuroscience in London, a full one in creative writing in Edinburgh) and remarks that this three-year stint in Dublin is the longest he's lived anywhere since Clonmel.
While no one, he smiles, could be more obsessively into writing than he is, he'd give it all up in a heartbeat. "I'm not spiritual and I don't believe in supernatural stuff," he says. "But certainly in terms of being published, I would rather have my friend back. I'm in love with being a writer. It's what I think about every day. But it's not worth what she was worth."
The Fractured Life of Jimmy Dice, Tinder Press, €17.99
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