The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
From Goodreads: In the aftermath of Ireland’s financial collapse, dangerous tensions surface in an Irish town. As violence flares, the characters face a battle between public persona and inner desires. Through a chorus of unique voices, each struggling to tell their own kind of truth, a single authentic tale unfolds.
The Spinning Heart speaks for contemporary Ireland like no other novel. Wry, vulnerable, all-too human, it captures the language and spirit of rural Ireland and with uncanny perception articulates the words and thoughts of a generation. Technically daring and evocative of Patrick McCabe and J.M. Synge, this novel of small-town life is witty, dark and sweetly poignant.
Review: 5 out of 5 Stars
I received a copy of this from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. It was the 2010 winner of the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book of the Year award and the US publication date is February 25, 2014, from Steerforth Press.
I am still at a loss on how best to review this gorgeous piece of writing. It is the easiest 5-star rating I have given this year.
I’ll start with the facts, then. 160 pages, 21 chapters. Each chapter is narrated by a different character who is somehow linked to a small town outside of Dublin following the economic crash. The chapters are all written using dialect, but never so much that it is difficult to read or comprehend. The chapters weave together with references overlapping and tying everything together into one cohesive story. I started reading this around 11:30pm and was not able to stop until I had finished it a few hours later. I kept telling myself I would read “just one more chapter'” but then there was a new character to meet and a new mystery to unravel and a new voice to explore.
One of the greatest strengths in this novel is the dialect. The dialect is written so brilliantly that it legitimately feels as though 21 different people narrate the story. I never got lost or confused between the characters because somehow the voices were so distinctly crafted – with little turns of phrase here and there that let you know this is a new person with his own story to tell. There was one chapter, for example, written from the perspective of someone who is not natively from Ireland. Within a few sentences I knew this fact about our new narrator, despite the fact that the actual disclosure of this didn’t come for a few more pages.
The story itself is also deeply compelling. Although the larger story is tied to Dell leaving the Dublin area, the immediate plot is more closely linked to the collapse of a construction company in a small, unnamed town outside of Dublin. The manager of the company had illegally not been reporting his employees, making it impossible for them to collect unemployment or a legally required pension. The manager skips town, leaving the men who worked for him lost and drifting, but still trying to keep up the picture of machismo and aura of not caring that seems to be the picture of the Irish man (at least in literature). The novel opens with a chapter from the perspective of the company’s foreman, Bobby, and the rest of the novel is basically spent unraveling everything we learn in this first chapter.
Every single narrator is somewhat self-absorbed and unreliable, but we still get these beautiful, painful depictions of what they truly think of themselves. There are points where the reader starts to know more than our narrators and you just want to jump into the book and mediate some communication, or give someone a hug, or stop that person from making a terrible decision based on half-truths. You start to feel like you know these people and this town, and it is impossible to walk away.
The story was in turns beautiful, hilarious, heartbreaking and unforgettable. I think this will be a work I revisit time and time again, getting something new from it each time. It’s cliche to say that it brought to mind Joyce, but what it brought to mind was my discovery of Joyce and the way that beautiful language can be used to communicate painful things.
I highly recommend this work.