Tuesday 20 March 2018

Books: A Manichean underworld of violence

A Slanting of the Sun, Stories, Donal Ryan, Transworld, €17.99

Author Donal Ryan. Photo: David Conachy.
Author Donal Ryan. Photo: David Conachy.

JP O'Malley

Donal Ryan has been lucky enough to bypass a gruelling apprenticeship that most writers have to put themselves through before gaining universal critical acclaim.

His debut novel, The Spinning Heart, may have been rejected 47 times before it got a publisher, but it was also nominated for the Booker Prize, and picked up the Guardian first book award too; while his follow-up, The Thing About December - technically his first novel - was warmly received by the literary establishment.

A Slanting of the Sun is the Limerick-based writer's first attempt to pen a book of short stories. Nineteen of the 20 tales here are written in the first person.

This very distinct and original voice brings a crucial sense of urgency to the stories: enabling the reader to feel they are immediately living and breathing in Ryan's fictional world without any required effort.

Ryan refrains from lyrical niceties, long-winded descriptions of nature, and the predictable glut of poetic metaphors we've come to expect in abundance from Irish authors working on short stories: where tradition and form usually take centre stage.

Instead, all of his efforts are placed on voice. Writing in the same idiom of his own characters allows Ryan to have far more authority over his text than a omniscient and aloof third person narrator could ever give him.

The characters we encounter here are often, but not always, marginalised, working class, young males, living in the environs of Limerick and Tipperary, who have very little prospects in life ahead of them. They are usually on the way to, or coming back out of, short stints in prison. And being part of a criminal gang appears to be the only gateway to successfully earn a living, or find any sense of self worth, respect, or identity. Cold blooded murder, and violence, of the most primal kind, is described in exceptionally exquisite prose in most of the stories.

In The Squad, a man is dragged across gorse and bog by a group of violent thugs, then blindfolded, just before he is about to be buried alive and shot; in Nephthys and the Lark a mother force feeds her daughter a sandwich, almost choking her in the process, before causally turning on the TV to relax in comfort; in A Slanting of the Sun a man witnesses his own brother being mercilessly gunned down for money; and in Crouch End Introductions, a sex worker based in north London, sees from a landing balcony, the brutal murder of one of her colleagues.

Ryan has what Seamus Heaney once described as a 'Catholic imagination'. And even though guilt is presented on the page here almost immediately after any thoughts to do with human sexuality, the author somehow manges to avoid the cliches we might normally associate with Catholicism and sex in Irish literature.

Perhaps this is because Ryan's characters tend to see the world in Manichean terms. This gives his prose a sophisticated sense of detachment. And while there are certainly echoes of Roddy Doyle, John McGahern, and several other Irish influences throughout this book, these stories lean closer, in both style and substance, to American writers like Flannery O' Connor, Marilynne Robinson, and John Steinbeck: where protagonists have nothing to lose but their dignity, and biblical notions of good versus evil, virtue, redemption, guilt and repentance are the dominant themes.

A Slanting of the Sun confirms that Donal Ryan is, without doubt, of the most exciting voices in contemporary Irish fiction.

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