So far this summer I have been binge reading: spending hours outside with a book, getting through 250 pages in one chunk before thinking, “I really should do some work today.” But the great thing about being a writer is that reading is work so when I remember that I usually make another pot of coffee and settle in for the next 250 pages!
I read Donal Ryan’s debut novel The Spinning Heart in an afternoon a couple of weeks ago. Set in a small town in rural Ireland the book is structured into twenty-one chapters, each of which takes a different character’s inner life as its subject, all of whom are struggling in post-crash Ireland.
There are pockets of Ireland that have been decimated by the recession. The unemployment rate is soaring, services are being taken away or closed down, and young people are emigrating in droves. The devastating effects can be felt perhaps more keenly in these small communities than in major urban areas like Dublin or Cork and Ryan illustrates this brilliantly.
There are chapters written from the point of view of local builders who were cleaning up during the boom years and now “can’t pay for the messages”. There’s a chapter from Kate, an ambitious woman who runs a childminding business that’s now suffering as her clients were employees of the Dell factory which has closed down. There’s a chapter from Réaltín, a single mother who panic-bought a house off the plans, fearful she’d miss her chance to get on the property ladder, and now finds herself living on a ghost estate. There’s even a chapter from Millicent, a small child who hates hearing her parents fight about the lack of money.
The voices of each character, the rhythms of their speech and the language used, are spot-on. Ryan’s natural ear for Irish dialogue and speech patterns reminded me of Roddy Doyle at times, with the same talent for making the reader laugh out loud. Take the opening two sentences of the book written from the perspective of the character Bobby who has a fractious relationship with his father: “My father still lives back 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.”
These flashes of humour are welcome as the book could be a depressing read otherwise. In a way Ryan has written a quintessentially Irish novel: the only thing his characters have to alleviate their tough lives is their sense of humour which is a quality intrinsic to our culture for centuries.
I’m delighted to see that Ryan has made the Man Booker prize longlist with The Spinning Heart. (He’s one of three Irish writers on the list, the other two being Colm Tóibín for The Testament of Mary and Colum McCann for TransAtlantic.) The Spinning Heart also won the Bord Gáis Energy Book of the Year 2012, a fantastic achievement for a new author. I can’t recommend this book highly enough and I’ll be first in the queue to buy Ryan’s second novel which is due out later this year.