An Irish epic with a potent post-millennial hum
Fiction: The Fractured Life of Jimmy Dice, Ronan Ryan, Tinder Press, pbk, 448 pages, €17.99
'I perceive the world as a minefield, with no pattern to where the mines are placed," débutante author Ronan Ryan recently said in a newspaper article. He was discussing his sister's chronic Lyme disease, picked up in the high-stress aftermath of an earthquake in Japan. "I'm not a believer in closure for traumas," he says at one point, but goes on to acknowledge that while she was able to move forwards after the earthquake, it was not as if that was her serving of personal life catastrophe done and out of the way.
The Clonmel-born author might as well have directed you to his debut novel, The Fractured Life of Jimmy Dice, where he offers us a protagonist who is a victim of both his own choices and the myriad landmines that can burst open underneath one's feet. In this muscular saga, Ryan takes a scenic, almost Russian, route to detailing the changing fortunes of a character at the mercy of the universe, but who also seems determined to do things his way. Be sympathetic, Ryan says, but do not pity him outright.
Pity is an emotion that Jimmy Diaz has to contend with often and may be among the reasons he is foolishly headstrong in moments. At seven, he and a friend sneak into a local man's yard, resulting in Jimmy's leg being chewed apart by a ferocious guard dog.
The limb is lost and Jimmy carries on with his young life. Some years later, following the suicide of his severely troubled mother, Jimmy is caught up in a debt with Dublin gangland criminals and ends up losing a few fingers. Nicole, an alluring Australian backpacker, enters his life and he again refuses to follow his instincts.
These travails are placed with a lightness of touch at the centre of a colourful orbit of friends and family, one alive with motion and heartbeat - a snooty sister, high-flying brother Tighe, his Argentine grandfather. But the most intriguing voice of all, one that skirts the fringes of Jimmy Dice, is that of our occasional narrator. This omnipotent presence is that of Jimmy's twin, lost in childbirth and now hovering behind him through his entire life, seeing what can't be seen and flecking his existence with hints of bigger themes, forces and plans. This is where Ryan mines mischief and mystique.
So, an Irish epic with a potent post-millennial hum and a wave-like momentum that becomes insidiously addictive. The hook in all this is surely the way the internal and external of such a full-bodied character (spiritually, at least) is balanced by Ryan, even when not a huge amount seems to be happening.
Whether or not this heralds the arrival of another great "Ryan" for Irish literary fiction remains to be seen, but the signs are certainly promising.