Donal Ryan is not about to give up writing. This is his first novel, he’s already written his second and he’s just been longlisted for the Man Booker.
The Spinning Heart is set in a small Irish community that’s been devastated by the financial crisis. A new development of houses has been abandoned by the builder, who has not been paying his employees’ stamps. The workers are left unable to claim social security; the good times are over.
And they’re over with a vengeance, and in their death throes all the miseries that seethed beneath the held-together lives of the protagonists come to the surface. Each chapter is narrated by a different character, which gives Ryan the opportunity to create a range of voices and explore the impact of each character’s actions on the others. We’re let into the network of relationships, but the voice of each character remains Ryan’s priority and this affords him space to include narration which doesn’t impact upon the plot. For a short novel, there’s plenty of drama – alcoholism, desertion, violence, abuse, child abduction, death – but the plot is delivered with a very light hand. Slightly too light, perhaps, for those who want to know who killed whom and why and what happened as a result.
In English Passengers, Matthew Kneale’s brilliant multi-character narrative, the plot had a rich and vibrant life of its own and the characters returned frequently enough to allow the reader to develop a relationship with each one. In The Spinning Heart, it’s one chapter, one character. No one comes back for a second chapter, and the multi-character aspect dominates the narrative. You get involved and then you get dumped, and are left feeling shallow for wanting to know What Happens In The End. This, of course, mirrors the experience of the community during the boom and bust. Perhaps that’s the point. But I felt as though I was being shepherded through an exhibition, constantly moved along before I’d had a chance to see what was really there. That didn’t change on second reading, and has left me wondering why the characters are left suspended and eager to see what Ryan might do with a single voice narrative.
The Spinning Heart is a poetic and seriously depressing read, with which Ryan joins a long and distinguished tradition of Irish writers. Roddy Doyle (Booker winner 1993), Patrick McCabe (Booker shortlisted 1994), Colm Toibin (Booker shortlisted 1999), John Banville (Booker winner 2005), Anne Enright (Booker winner 2007) to name but the (Man) Bookers… Misery loves company, and Donal Ryan is in very good company indeed.