THE SPINNING HEART by Donal Ryan, Review: Packs a punch

The Spinning Heart Synopsis

The Spinning Heart Donal RyanIn 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.

Donal Ryan’s brilliantly realized debut announces a stunning new voice in literary fiction.

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From the opening sentence, The Spinning Heart packs a punch.

“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.”

I really enjoy fiction told from multiple narrative viewpoints. In The Spinning Heart, Donal Ryan has used multiple narrators in a way I have not come across before.  This novel is comprised of 21 chapters, each narrated by a different character, the name of which corresponds to the chapter title.

Each of the 21 characters has a unique voice – differing language and writing style, different things they wish to say, different things that are important to them. While they might talk about other characters whose narrative viewpoint the reader has already heard or will hear at a later point in the novel, no character speaks to the reader more than once. Just consider for a moment how complex that would have been to plot?

Since I love puzzles, I thought this was impressive. At first I found myself worrying a little too much about trying to remember all the names mentioned because there are a lot. Once I just let go a bit and let the story wash over me I began to enjoy the experience much more.

Skilful characterisation

Character development is a clear talent of Ryan’s. He conveys the despair of the people and in many cases the shame of not seeing through reckless behaviours during the boom times; or for those that did, the shame of sticking their head in the sand.

What makes this work powerful is Ryan’s fearless inclusion of many taboo subjects in society such as welfare dependence, domestic abuse and mental illness just to name a few. From the incomplete ghostlike residential estates to the aimlessness and desperation of the unemployed, he paints a sad picture.

“I never thought I’d ever be depressed, really. It’s quare easy fall into that hole. You can kind of lose yourself very quick, when all about you changes and things you thought you always would have turn out to be things you never really had, and things you were sure you’d have in the future turn out to be on the far side of a big, dark mountain that you have no hope of ever climbing over.”

However, for all the sadness, ironic and sometimes caustic observations by characters balance the darker moments. The Spinning Heart is Donal Ryan’s debut novel. It won the Newcomer of the Year at the Irish Book Awards 2012 and was then long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2013.

It is a relatively short piece at only 160 pages, but well worth reading. What struck me most about The Spinning Heart was the rawness and honesty of the emotions conveyed. It is a haunting tale in which not everything is explained but things are understood.

BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4.5 / 5  —  Overall 4.25

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Genre: Literature, Drama

About the Author, Donal Ryan

Donal Ryan was born in a village in North Tipperary, a stroll from the shores of Lough Derg. He wrote his first two books, The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December, in the long summer evenings of 2010. He has then gone on to publish the novels All We Shall Know (2016) and From a Low and Quiet Sea (2018) and the story collections A Slanting of the Sun (2015) and How Much the Heart Can Hold (2016). Donal lives in Limerick with his wife and children.