Donal Ryan is one of the most notable Irish writers to emerge this decade. So far he has produced five volumes of fiction set in post-millennial Ireland. What sets him apart is a striking facility for narrative voice as well as a startling diversity of protagonists. His first novel, The Spinning Heart — about a town’s slump when the Celtic Tiger died — had no fewer than 21 narrators, mostly speaking in effervescent vernacular.
His latest work revisits tragedy and loss with just four narrative perspectives. With the first, however, he puts aside Irish provincial life to tackle global tragedy. Farouk is a Syrian doctor who is working in a local hospital after his family drowned during a desperate sea crossing to Europe. Ryan’s treatment is acutely sensitive and horribly inventive. He delivers a masterly portrait of a man who loses touch with himself when grief submerges him. This is the novel’s high point, and the confidence with which Ryan dons the clothing of another culture marks a departure for his writing.
His other protagonists are homegrown. Lampy, who works in a care home, nurses a broken heart and a temper problem. His grandfather, meanwhile, is an incorrigible wag who sets pubs roaring with his sallies. Lampy says of him: ‘When he was in form his tongue could slice the world in two.’ John is a businessman riven with remorse for moral and criminal transgressions. He is less well realised than his counterparts, regrettably.
Plot is not Ryan’s strength. He ties his narrative threads together clumsily through a series of rapidly alternating episodes, an approach more suited to popular thrillers than literary fiction. Voice is what he is about. It’s easy to imagine some of his monologues delivered on stage. He is cited as a successor to John McGahern, yet he’s not far from the likes of Conor McPherson either.
Above all he is an exemplar of a Celtic literary tradition in which a boundless oral vitality lends the tribulations of life a richer texture. It is exciting to see his subject matter move beyond his country’s borders, with the prospect of more of this to come.