The Spinning Heart, by Donal Ryan

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Purchased from the Book Depository

Purchased from the Book Depository

The 2013 Booker longlist contains a number of examples of what seems to be a new favorite structure for contemporary authors: independent narrative streams telling the stories of different central characters which are eventually braided together. TransAtlantic by Colum McCann features three historical tales set 150 years apart — the unifying feature turns out to be a four-generation story involving characters who appear secondarily in each of the streams. Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw takes place entirely in present-day Shanghai but involves five different Malaysian fortune-seekers whose stories are developed independently but eventually overlap (not entirely convincingly, it must be said). The device is certainly not unknown in fiction but it seems to be becoming more common — or perhaps it is just that it appeals to this year’s jury.

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.

booker logoIn 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.

11 Responses to “The Spinning Heart, by Donal Ryan”

  1. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    This is a book Im definitely going to read. The excerpts you have chosen make it very appealing, and the characters sound dead charming. I have pretty high tolerance for execution risk if there is enough substance in the book : especially in a first novel.

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  2. lauratfrey Says:

    I’m looking for novellas for a “Novellas in November” event, and this is six pages over the cut off, but I’m inclined to let that go. The excerpt made me want to read more.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I’d describe it as a novella-length book that does read very much like a novel (in contrast to Colm Toibin’s A Testament of Mary reviewed here earlier which does not seek or reach novel status). To help with your cut off length, the text does not start until page nine and with 21 chapter breaks there is quite a bit of white space for a book of this length. The volume itself is compact in all dimensions and the hardcover version has quite large body type.

      I should note that my excerpts all came from one chapter and hence one voice. Ryan does vary the voices quite well, so they do have a distinctive tone as well as content — there were simply too many for me to try to illustrate that in the review.

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  3. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    I loved this little book – but only once I learned that I could only read it in very small doses. In the middle third of the book, I had trouble separating the voices from each other, and they all melded together. I put it down for a while, and came back to it, a little bit at a time. While there are flaws in this book, the poignancy with which he describes relationships, his eloquence in conveying heartache, and his funny, funny descriptions of events and characters made it a hugely rewarding read for me.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I’m glad you liked it — and I do think your comment is good advice for other readers. The size and length of the book are a strong temptation to read it as though it were a long short story and that does it a disservice. Thanks also for mentioning the humor that Ryan shows in many of the excerpts — I had overlooked pointing to that in my original review.

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  4. leroyhunter Says:

    I like the excerpts you quote Kevin. Noting the ambition / structure risks, I would still think about reading this. It’s of urgent interest to see writers (and other artists) grapple with telling / understanding the story of the last decade and its consequenses.

    I would suggest that based on your appreciation of this book you should certainly consider Kevin Barry’s 2 collections of short stories. You’ll get the story / charachter “hits” without the need to worry about over-arching structure.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Apparently the novel has been marketed in the UK as a story of the economic collapse and my conclusion would be that is somewhat misleading. These are people with very limited influence, so they had little to do with the boom, although they did benefit from it. And they had even less to do with the collapse, although they certainly paid a price. Then again, that is probably a fair description of how much personal choice most people have with booms or collapses that effect them.

      Thanks for the Kevin Barry pointer — I’ll check him out. Although I have to admit the story collection pile has done nothing but grow this year. It seems as though I have to have a conscious program to ensure I read one or two a day (which I did last year) to make sure I get to them. It isn’t that I don’t like short stories, it just seems the genre doesn’t suit my usual reading habits.

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  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    As I think I’ve said before here, I’d rather flawed ambition than polished safety. Still, I wasn’t sure about the use of italics for emphasis in the third quote. Is that an issue just for that character perspective or a more general stylistic technique?

    It has been marketed in the UK as a novel of the collapse, so it’s interesting to hear that that’s not quite right (or not completely so at any rate).

    Despite your cautions, I’m actually more inclined to read this than I was previously. Perhaps because I have a better sense of its failings, and so a sound basis on which to approach it.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Those italics don’t show up very much at all — I’d say it is simply an attempt to show how one voice attempts to relate another’s. It is the way Bobby heard, if you will.

      I should also report on Mrs. KfC’s experience. She was very excited after a third of the book and then started to experience the same concerns that I did. Her response was to read one or two entries and then set aside the book, even if only for an hour or so. She reports that for her that brought back the freshness of the new voices — I fear that the way I read it (in two sittings on both attempts) meant that I was paying too much attention keeping the various plots straight and not enough appreciating the different voices.

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