Novella a Day in May 2019 #14

The Spinning Heart – Donal Ryan (2012, 156 pages)

I was first made aware of Donal Ryan on Cathy’s blog when she reviewed his short story collection, A Slanting of the Sun and the writing sounded wonderful. The Spinning Heart is Ryan’s first novel and was longlisted for the Man Booker and Guardian First Book Award, winning won Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. It reminded me of Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13, in that it builds a picture of a community in quiet crisis through a variety of viewpoints. However, whereas McGregor uses omniscient narration, Ryan has each of the 21 chapters narrated by a different person. He manages this brilliantly, keeping the story flowing but still managing to convey different voices without jarring.

The story begins with Bobby Mahon:

“My father still lives back on the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in. I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down. He hasn’t yet missed a day of letting me down. He smiles at me; that terrible smile. He knows I’m coming to check is he dead.”

This opening paragraph introduces many themes in the novel: families, abuse, inheritance (financial and psychological), uncomfortable but inescapable feelings. Each person in the story is linked to the others either directly or indirectly, and through their individual stories we get a rich portrait of a town, the people in it, and their shared lives.

It is a resolutely contemporary story. The collapse of the Celtic Tiger has had a devastating effect, and everyone is reeling. Bobby was foreman for Pokey Burke, the local building contractor who has fled leaving unpaid builders, unregistered for government help, destitute. There is a ghost town of a new estate with only two residents in it.

Young Brian is thinking of trying Australia for work. He has a good mind but sees no future in study, nor in Ireland itself, especially since breaking up with his girlfriend.

“On an intellectual level, I couldn’t give a shite about her. It’s a strange dichotomy, so it is; feeling and knowing; the feeling feels truer than the knowing of its falseness. Jaysus, I should write this shite down and send it Pawsy before I go.”

Ryan never deals in stereotypes despite many recognisable characters. There is Brian’s postmodern musings, and Lily, the aging town prostitute’s poetic and tender feelings for her children.

“I love all my children the same way a swallow loves the blue sky; I have no choice in the matter. Like the men that came to my door, nature overpowers me.”

The character studies are individual and collective, like the town. So we learn more about how highly Bobby is thought of in the community, despite him introducing himself to the reader in that first chapter as damaged and failing. The builders respect him, women find him attractive, he’s a sporting hero and his wife is devoted. Long-time resident Bridie sums it up:

“There’s something in that boy, the way he looks at you while he’s talking, sort of embarrassed so that you want to hug him, and with a distance in his eyes even when he’s looking straight at you, that makes you think there’s a fierce sadness and a kind of rare goodness in him.”

It is what happens to Bobby that forms the plot of the novella.

The Spinning Heart ends on a note of hope but you still know things could go badly wrong. Ryan manages to convey the toughness of contemporary lives in dire straits caused by family histories and contemporary political mismanagement, without ever being didactic or depressing. It’s unflinching but hugely compassionate.

“the dead stillness I’d assume, the way I’d almost hold my breath while he spoke, it was the very same as when I’d be trying not to startle a wild animal”

And now I really must get to A Slanting of the Sun which I’ve been meaning to read ever since Cathy’s post…

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16 thoughts on “Novella a Day in May 2019 #14

  1. For some reason I didn’t get on with this as well as I’d hoped but I think that’s because expectations were ramped up by the hype surrounding it at the time. I’ve read several of Ryan’s novellas since and loved them, particularly From a Low and Quiet Sea. Perhaps I should go back and give this one a reread.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I so often find that books are overhyped and then disappointing – I don’t understand it, surely it does the author no favours? But then maybe the publishers just want initial sales, and word-of-mouth and reader experience are not so important. Thankfully the hype on this passed me by so I had no particular expectations of it.

      If you’ve enjoyed him since then maybe a re-read would be worthwhile? I’ll definitely look out for From a Low and Quiet Sea, I’d love to read more by him.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Gosh that story opening is striking isn’t it. I keep hearing about this author, probably also from Cathy. I think he could be a writer I would like. I like novels and stories with good character development. Great review.

    Liked by 1 person

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