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.
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 Kennys.ie, 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.