Eimear MacBride is currently Ireland’s most famous rejected novelist, but Donal Ryan has some claim to the title having amassed 47 rejections for his first two novels before The Spinning Heart was published in 2012. One might wonder whether Ireland’s conveyer belt of talent is simply down to persistence, or whether it is the risk taking nature of Irish writers that postpones publication but eventually reaps the reward. The Spinning Heart presents its own challenges for the reader, constructed as it is from 21 different voices. A polyphonic novel is not a new idea – one immediately thinks of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying – but Ryan allows each voice to speak only once making moving the narrative forward even more of a technical challenge.
Ryan has described his aim as “to write an accurate description of a village in Ireland” and the novel’s form encapsulates the sensation of a small community as characters’ stories intertwine. If there is a central character it is Bobby Mahon whose voice we hear first. A number of the novel’s plot stands are introduced, including its concern with the economic collapse that took place in Ireland after the global financial crisis. Bobby is a builder who not only finds himself out of work, but discovers that he has been cheated while working:
“That’s the worst of the whole thing. We all went to draw our stamps and they only laughed at us. Stamps? What Stamps? There wasn’t a stamp paid in for any of us, nor a screed to the Revenue, either.”
There is a feeling that the good times have been taken for granted, questions haven’t been asked, and the greed of those who have prospered (Pokey Burke, whose voice we do not hear as he leaves the village, abandoning it to its fate) has damaged the rest. Ryan, however, is not harking back nostalgically to a pre-boom Ireland, as the past is best epitomised by Bobby’s father whom Bobby visits every day – “to check is he dead.” His father has spent the last few years drinking the money left to him by his father – entirely out of spite having never touched a drop while Bobby’s grandfather lived.
Bobby is generally admired in the community, described as a man “you’d be proud of”;
“He’s beautiful, that boy, tall and fair haired like his mother.”
“Your man Bobby is fair sound all the same.”
To some extent the novel tells the story of how his reputation begins to unravel as he struggles on after losing his job. However, this would be a very simplistic view as every character’s story is foregrounded at some point, and Ryan creates some particularly strong female characters. At no point did I wish a previous character would return to take charge of the narrative, and I generally found navigating the various relationships (between characters and events) straightforward, which suggests great skill of the part of the writer.
Despite its often bleak content, the novel is also a love story. Not a ‘falling in love’ story, but one of quiet, ordinary love between Bobby and his wife Triona. “Having a wife is great,” Bobby says in the opening chapter, which is them bookended with Triona’s voice, (all the other voices being contained, in sense, within their embrace; coming between them but not coming between them):
“What matters only love?”
Ultimately this makes The Spinning Heart a life affirming book as well as an impressive technical accomplishment. Donal Ryan is yet another Irish writer to watch out for.