In one sense, Donal Ryan’s debut novel, The Spinning Heart, represents an extreme use of the approach: the tightly-written 156-page novel consists of first-person vignettes from 21 different characters, many of them only four or five pages long. They all live in the same Irish village and are all involved (in varying degrees) with the over-arching events of the narrative, but each has a unique experience with them.
In another sense, however, Ryan uses the device quite differently. Where McCann and Aw end up braiding the streams together, Ryan treats his 21 “chapters” like tiles of a mosaic — he lays them all out but leaves it to the reader to put the overall arrangement together.
It needs to be said that the novel is not as random as that description suggests. The opening chapter (“Bobby”) is the narrative of the closest thing the book has to a central character — Ryan is also wise enough to use it to introduce one man’s version of those over-arching events that affect the entire cast.
The most pervasive of these is the demise of Pokey Burke’s house construction “business” (where Bobby is the foreman), a product both of the economic collapse of the Celtic Tiger and Pokey’s criminality. We see its impact initially through Bobby describing fellow worker Mickey Briar’s response to losing his job:
He went over and started to beat the prefab door until Pokey opened it a crack and threw an envelope at him and slammed the door again, just as Mickey put his head down and went to ram him like an old billy goat. Mickey’s hard old skull splintered that door and very nearly gave way. Pokey must have shat himself inside. I want my fuckin pension you little prick, Mickey roared and roared. I want my fuckin pension and the rest of my stamps. Come out you bollocks till I kill you. For a finish he went on a rampage around the place, turning over barrows and pulling formwork apart and when he picked up a shovel and started swinging, we all ran for cover. Except poor innocent Timmy Hanrahan: he only stood grinning back to his two ears like the gom that he is.
And Mickey Briars lamped Timmy Hanrahan twice across both sides of his innocent young head before we subdued him.
Pokey hasn’t been keeping his accounts with the government square — as far as the authorities are concerned, the laid-off workers have never existed. Ryan may be using a contemporary setting but he preserves a frequent theme of Irish fiction: the powerful always punish the powerless (and the powerless tend to take their resulting anger out on each other).
Generational conflict is another constant in Ryan’s anonymous village. The author opens the book by introducing Bobby’s version of it:
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. 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. He knows I know he knows. He laughs his crooked laugh. I ask is he okay for everything and he only laughs.
Bobby’s description of his generational conflict may be a bit extreme but many of the 21 characters have their own version. The novel suggests that it is an inevitable by-product of a community where there is not much opportunity and not much changes.
And finally (for review purposes because other themes do get introduced), there is the tension between the sexes that also comes from being part of what is essentially a closed community. Here’s how Bobby describes meeting his wife, Triona:
I always knew Pokey Burke was a bit afraid of me. Triona say I exuded menace when she met me first. She has a lovely way of putting things. There was no one stopping her doing honors English. She says I stood against the bar inside in the disco in town and stared at her. Her friend said what the fuck is that freak looking at, but Triona knew the friend was only raging I wasn’t staring at her. Oh, don’t look back, for Christ’s sake, the friend said, he’s from an awful family, they live in a hovel, the father is a weirdo and the mother never speaks — but Triona looked back all the same and when I scowled at her she knew I was trying to smile, and when I hardly spoke to her on the way home she knew deep down that I was terrified of the lightness and loveliness of her, and when she said are we going to shift so or what, I thought I’d never again regain the power of movement.
I’ll admit that Bobby’s story had me engaged with this novel from the start — the sketches of those themes outlined above (and the others I have not mentioned) were ample enough structure for me. And in the next few chapters, Ryan broadens it aptly. We next hear the story of Pokey’s father which enhances the economic disaster background. And then comes Lily’s story of sleeping around. It is followed by that of Vasya, one of the immigrant workers dragged into Pokey’s economic web. The portrait of the village inhabitants begins to acquire depth.
My enthusiasm continued throughout the first two-thirds of the book, heightened as we are given the views of characters we have met in previous chapters.
Unfortunately, at about that point the challenges of Ryan’s dramatic structure start to exceed the author’s ability to deal with them. We have already heard from most of the central characters in the village story, so he needs to rely on increasingly peripheral ones. He also resorts to introducing a new plot line to keep his story going — it was not convincing to me and has drawn negative comment from others who have read the novel.
When it comes time to bring the book to a close (he has saved the stories of a few key characters), I was only too aware of the biggest drawback of the narrative approach. It simply does not allow for a robust enough development of characters (because this is a novel about people who are trapped in situations they do not control) for its conclusion to have the impact it deserves.
I would give Ryan an A for ambition in the way he has chosen to tell his story — I think anyone who reads much fiction would have the same reaction and the book is worth reading for that alone. Alas, the marks for execution are much lower. I did read the book twice because I wanted him to succeed — I’m afraid the second reading produced the same concerns that resulted from the first one. Is that an inevitable result of the structure or simply the author’s inability to deliver on it? I’m inclined to think the former.
The Spinning Heart deserved its Booker longlisting and I would be happy to see it on the shortlist — readers need to be introduced to authors who are willing to take chances. Alas, I would be disappointed if the jury is so enthusiastic about the effort that they choose to reward it with the 2013 Prize itself.