James Walton

The Spinning Heart, by Donal Ryan - review

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The Spinning Heart

Donal Ryan

Doubleday Ireland, pp. 159, £

Despite being so short, The Spinning Heart certainly can’t be accused of lacking ambition. Over the course of its 150-odd pages, Donal Ryan’s first novel introduces us to no fewer than 21 narrators living in or around the same small town in the west of Ireland. One by one, they reflect on their lives, past and present. Between them, though, they also tell us the story of a local kidnap and then of a local murder. This plot element is handled with considerable deftness — the various clues, perspectives, overlaps and contradictions duly coalescing into a single, comprehensible account. Yet, in the end, it only ever seems a handy framework (or completely acceptable excuse) for Ryan’s real concerns.

For one thing, this is firmly a novel of the Irish crash. Several of the narrators are builders who now have nothing to build — and whose boss during the boom years failed to pay into their social security funds. But the recession has touched everybody else as well. A young girl can’t bear the rows about money that her parents are constantly having. A woman who runs a child-minding business has been struggling badly since the Dell computer factory closed, laying off many of the parents who were once her customers. A single mother finds herself rattling round a ‘ghost estate’, where just two houses are occupied; the only people showing much interest in its plight are TV crews from Dublin making documentaries about ghost estates.

The portrait of a whole town facing sudden crisis naturally packs quite a punch. Even so, the most impressive aspect of this overwhelmingly impressive novel is the sheer quality of those 21 narrations. Apart, understandably, from a now-marooned Siberian immigrant, everybody speaks with varying degrees of Irish demotic (‘in school I was well able for the English and geography and history’). Nonetheless, all are perfectly distinguishable, and in every case — including the Siberian immigrant — Ryan triumphantly pulls off a trick more usually associated with the best theatre: that of entirely convincing heightened speech. These monologues, you feel, may not be exactly what the characters would say — but they are exactly what the characters would want to say. As a result, we’re led deep into what I’m tempted to call their souls.

Meanwhile, that demotic achieves something else too. On the one hand, these people are speaking in a language that’s been familiar in rural Irish literature since at least the days of Synge. On the other, they’re using it to describe a world of closing computer factories and crunched credit. (One man even refers to the recession itself as ‘the sudden stop that everything is after coming to’.) It’s a collision that provides a jolting yet unforced reminder of how hugely — and how weirdly — the west of Ireland has changed over the past decades.

Of course, the traditional epithet for a good first novel is ‘promising’. The Spinning Heart, however, is far more than that. Instead, it’s the unambiguous announcement of a genuine and apparently fully-formed new talent.