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Donal Ryan’s debut novel, The Spinning Heart, is a triumph, capturing a snapshot of a contemporary Ireland reeling from the economic downturn in a kaleidoscope of different voices.

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan (US paperback cover)

The Spinning Heart
by Donal Ryan
(US paperback cover)

Set in a small western community, The Spinning Heart paints its picture one voice at a time. Each character is given one chapter, and one chapter only, to give their take on events that affect them all. We start with the story of local boy Bobby Mahon, a tough site foreman whose boss — an unscrupulous developer, one half of the twin demons on whose shoulders are being laid all of the blame for Ireland’s financial crisis (the other half being the bankers, of course) — has just shafted him and all the workers under him, disappearing and leaving houses unfinished, and taking his employee’s stamp money (what would be social security payments in the US) with him. Dealing with the sudden reality of no work, no social security payments, and no prospect of other work after years when even high-school dropouts could earn big money building houses is shattering to Bobby’s confidence. This chapter is almost too hard to read, as it captures the raw emotion, sadness, and desperate sense of not knowing what to do next incredibly well.

As the book goes on we see the community react to him; less-attractive Irish traits like begrudgery and an eagerness to pull the successful down to size come out in revisionism of Bobby’s standing in the community, suspicions are voiced about his faithfulness, his toughness, and his honesty.

We go on to hear from a selection of the leading lights of the community, and also the bystanders: the foreign building workers who loved the country and stayed; the gormless, overgrown boys who find themselves unmarried fathers before they’ve left home; the people left living in the one or two inhabited houses in a ghost estate; and the fundamentally decent father of an unscrupulous son left to face their disapproving community. Some are stories we read in the papers everyday, others have been largely absent from the national dialogue.

The gradual effect of this chorus of voices is to build up the mosaic picture of a community in the throes of immense change; a community grappling with the questions of how they let this calamity happen — not from the point of view of monetary policy and oversight, as the political class has been doing ineffectually for the past several years, but from the personal standpoint: How could these people have let themselves be fooled like that? How could seemingly decent people that were raised within the community turn out to be so untrustworthy? Why didn’t they suspect it was too good to be true all along? Wasn’t it madness to think the good times would continue indefinitely?  And, how are they ever going to get out of this mess?

The structure of Ryan’s novel seems to suggest a third way of analyzing the crisis, halfway between between the impersonal considerations of monetary policy, and the sensationalist chatter of talk radio, eternally searching for scapegoats and single causes on which to focus and lay blame. Despite the sadness and dire straits of many of the characters, Ryan’s skill at developing the different voices and his perceptiveness in articulating the different viewpoints and factors at play makes the novel a joy to read, with new developments forcing us to reexamine our earlier views and sympathies, and keeping the reading experience from becoming formulaic or predictable. Take this passage in which Réaltín, a single mum living in one of the only two occupied houses in one ghost estate, muses on the her desperation to buy a house before it was beyond her ability to get a mortgage:

“When Daddy and me went in to the auctioneers to ask about these houses, they let on that they were nearly all sold. I wanted a corner house with a bigger garden, but the guy started fake-laughing, as if I was after asking for a solid gold toilet or something…. He said he couldn’t promise us any of the houses would still be available the next day. I believed him, even though I should have known better. Daddy got all flustered and worried then, and drove like a madman back to the Credit Union to get me the cash. I’d love to go in to that auctioneer now and kick him in the balls.”

We can feel her frustration at having to live with that catastrophic decision, and also glimpse her father’s nervousness dealing with circumstances that must have been so far removed from his own experience of home buying a generation before.

We gradually come to understand the individual stories, not from one perspective, but from many. Single-mum Réaltín is far from a statistic; hard-nosed business-woman Kate may be giddy that the one good thing to come out of the recession is that “people will work for less than the minimum wage,” but she’s tortured by the fear that her unemployed electrician husband might be looking for a bit on the side because she’s too stressed to be unsympathetic to his situation; and, the much beleaguered local Garda sergeant may not have the over-riding ambition and management savvy of his superiors, but he knows his community and notices the small clues that lead to the right conclusion.

The Spinning Heart is a powerful debut novel from a new Irish writer, and one which bears witness to the current moment in Irish life as only a novel can.

  • The Spinning Heart is available as a paperback or ebook in Ireland and the UK from Transworld.
  • A signed, limited-edition hardcover is also available from Lilliputt Press in Ireland.
  • I ordered my copy of The Spinning Heart from, and I recommend them for international customers. (I receive no kickbacks for that endorsement.)
  • The Spinning Heart was released in the USA by Steerforth Press in March 2014.


I savored every word of Colum McCann’s elegant new novel, TransAtlantic. McCann has always been a writer who aims for a perfect image or a poetic turn of phrase, TransAtlantic is told in a gentle, unhurried style, almost a series of reminiscences, and the format allows McCann to give full play to his poetry.

New Irish fiction, Irish authors

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (US Cover)

The novel is anchored by three historical events (in the order they appear in the novel: Alcock and Brown’s first transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to Ireland, Frederick Douglass’s reading tour of Ireland during the great famine, and Senator George Mitchell’s negotiations that lead to the Good Friday Agreement that enabled power-sharing in Northern Ireland and brought about the apparent disarming of paramilitary organizations), but the meat is in the story of four generations of Irish women whose lives intersect with these famous men and events briefly (the herstory to balance the history, if you like).

If any novel can be said to have a single theme, or central focus, perhaps the unifying factor behind the stories in TransAtlantic is the individual’s desire for a freedom from external hinderances. The characters work for the abolition of slavery, the defeat of the Germans in two world wars, the end of religious strife in Ireland, economic independence, equal rights for women, the right of a woman to publish under her own name, the freedom to be accepted as an unmarried mother, the right to have ones’ children and grandchildren grow up safely, and centrally, the abolition of distance (physical and metaphorical): the normalization of crossing the Atlantic and the vast improvement in humanity’s ability to understand and help each other that this represented.

In 1845, Frederick Douglass inadvertently inspires a young woman, a maid named Lily Duggan, to leave Ireland and go to America in search of a better life. Lily survives a horrific passage on a coffin ship, to find life in the teeming streets of New York City much less hospitable than she hoped for. A survivor, Lily eventually marries an ice-farmer in the upper mid-west, and becomes the matriarch of a line of women whose story drives the novel. Her daughter, Emily, who lives to write, yet must publish under a male pseudonym for years; her daughter Lottie, who takes to photography as her art; and finally Hannah, who must deal with both the death of her son during the troubles, and the economic ruin of the current financial crisis.

Irish Fiction Expert

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (UK/Irish cover)

The novel looks at a long series of characters trying to better themselves and their fellows, often in some way that unites Ireland and America: Douglass raising awareness of the cause of emancipation, Mitchell negotiating for peace, Lily making a better life for her children, Lottie quietly working to support the peace process. But it is the final characters who enter the tale, a very modern Irish family — an inter-racial marriage, never mind an inter-denominational one — that wraps up the story, and brings it firmly into the present day. In this, McCann with his characteristic hope and optimism points out the small but potentially significant seeds of change being sown in modern Ireland: a nation now absorbing an increasing number of immigrants, with new ideas, bonds, and possibilities taking root under the surface. In his more-inclusive conception of family, McCann seems to be observing that the future will depend less on family solidarity and dynastic inheritance (the cornerstone of Irish politics and community), and more on communal support, the exchange of new ideas, and an enlarged sense of community, beyond religion, beyond race, beyond blood ties.

The last lines of his early story “Wood,” (from his excellent book Everything in this Country Must) in which a young boy watches trees “going mad in the wind,” the branches mindlessly “slapping each other around like people,” before the 12th of July marching season, have always struck me as one of the most apt metaphors for the discord in Northern Ireland ever put to paper. That McCann can now write a novel that is so optimistic, and chronicles such change a mere 15 years or so later, speaks volumes for how vast the changes in the political climate in Ireland have been. If novelists truly hold a mirror up to society, then it appears that the society McCann is reflecting in TransAtlantic is becoming a much less polarized one than he had to depict two decades ago. In TransAtlantic, McCann captures the great arc of globalization that increasingly shapes our age through the lens of one family’s history and some of the pivotal events that helped shape it, and leaves the reader with the hope that a corner has been turned, that Lily Duggan’s dream of a better life is finally coming to pass.

— Rich


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