The Spinning Heart
Lilliput Press €11.99
When a book is recommended to us, the first question we invariably ask is, "What's it like?" So when I tell you that The Spinning Heart, Donal Ryan's extraordinarily accomplished first novel, is a little like Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, and a little like As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, I don't mean that is is derivative of those great classics; nor do I wish to swamp a new writer with grandiose comparisons.
I want firstly to alert you to the formal properties that the three books have in common: The Spinning Heart is novel as story cycle, employing multiple narrators to create a portrait of a community and a panoramic narrative of what occurs within it over the course of a single summer. I also, by mentioning Ryan in the same sentence as Anderson and Faulkner, want you to register that here is a new Irish writer of the very first order. Donal Ryan is the real deal.
The initial signs, however, are not auspicious. "My father still lives back the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in. I go there every day to see if he is dead, and every day he lets me down. He hasn't yet missed a day of letting me down." These are the novel's opening lines, and reading them, I feared we were in the company of yet another John McGahern pasticheur, marooned in the 1950s' literary theme park that has become all too familiar in our allegedly contemporary literature, where silent fathers and sons hate, and stoical women endure and the farm withers and dies to the mournful murmur of Synge song.
The fact that the first narrator's name is Bobby Mahon, and that his da is duly murdered, presents further cause for unease. But it soon becomes clear that Ryan is painting on an altogether broader canvas; the past is indeed present, but only as one detail in what amounts to a brilliantly realised, utterly resonant state-of-the-nation landscape.
The Spinning Heart unfolds in an unnamed rural village not far from County Clare, and within commuting distance of Limerick. Twenty characters take it in turn to relate the story of how Pokey Burke left his building crew high and dry when the crash came, having failed to pay their stamps; how Dell closing led to Kate reducing wages at her childcare facility and hiring a male Montessori teacher of dubious provenance; how Realtin, stranded and desperate on a ghost estate, has her baby snatched; how the summary shooting of the volatile Cunliffe boy led to the land getting divided up among the villagers, which was the root cause of all that followed; how all the drugs and casual sex in the world can't cure depression or grief, or begin to mend the flaking, creaking, spinning hearts of the interconnected characters.
On a purely technical level, Ryan's feat is considerable. Narrative and character information is distributed among so many different voices and yet we never feel at a loss. Even the characters on the margins of the story, unemployable Jason ("The biggest mistake I made when I was younger was getting tattoos all over my face.") or Siberian labourer Vasya ("There is no flatness in this land. It is all small hills and hidden valleys.") add compelling colour and texture.
Best of all, Ryan's ear for speech is acute. Here's Realtin: "My head was all over the place. That's one phrase I detest ... The awful thing is, whenever I think of the way I was the time I was meeting Seanie and accidentally had sex with George, that's the phrase that comes to mind." Here's Brian, describing his mother's reaction to his plan to go to Australia: " ... she was doing the old shout-whisper: He's too young, Paddy, he'll drink his head off and spend all his money trying to keep up with the boy of the Farrells and he'll get no job." And here's poor, gorgeous, depressed Seanie: "Drowning is easy, I'd say. You only have to breathe in a lungful of water and you're gone, floating away to nothing. How come I can't be like everyone thinks I am? I'd love to really be Seanie Shaper. I'd love to not be here again, sitting looking at the water."
Sometimes people say, having praised a debut novel, that they look forward to what the writer does next, as if there is always room for improvement. Given a novel as brilliantly realised as The Spinning Heart, I see no reason to look anywhere but the present. For Donal Ryan, the future is now.
Declan Hughes is a novelist and playwright. His new play, 'The Last Summer', is now running at the Gate Theatre, Dublin