THE SPIRAL by Iain Ryan, Book Review: Brutal truths

The Spiral by Iain Ryan is a highly inventive and thought-provoking literary mystery thriller, but do those qualities alone equate to impressive? Read my review.

The Spiral by Iain Ryan (Echo $29.99)

The Spiral Synopsis

It’s not just the truth that lurks at the bottom of the spiral . . . The utterly original and brilliantly compelling new thriller by twice Ned Kelly Award shortlisted Iain Ryan . . .


Erma Bridges’ life is far from perfect, but entirely ordinary. So when she is shot twice in a targeted attack by a colleague, her quiet existence is shattered in an instant.

With her would-be murderer dead, no one can give Erma the answers she needs to move on from her trauma. Why her? Why now?

So begins Erma’s quest for the truth – and a dangerous, spiralling journey into the heart of darkness.

With all the inventiveness of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and the raw brutality of Mulholland DriveTHE SPIRAL is a unique crime thriller with killer twists – and 2020’s most jaw-dropping ending.

(Echo Publishing, Allen & Unwin February 2021)

Genre: Thriller, Drama, Mystery, Literature

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The Spiral Review

Much like the bulk of characters in this unusual novel, I am uncommonly conflicted in regards to the good vs bad of this brutal thriller. The Spiral is undoubtedly ambitious, highly inventive and thought-provoking, but do those qualities alone equate to impressive in a literary context?

Ryan’s choice to explore contextual judgements from within a highly academic setting is a loaded, and I think clever one. At first, I felt similarly about his decision to explore the fate vs free will debate through the lens of those ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ books that were popular when I was young. The irony of the distinct lack of autonomy with their pre-determined outcomes was not lost on me even as a child (and was I think the key reason I did not like these books) and Ryan demonstrates this well on multiple story levels.

From Erma’s narrative:

My main problem is that these books force an account of you. We’re talking about fictional novels that, in a quiet, sneaky way, dominate you. These novels interpellate you. Do you want to correct your mistakes? Then be the hero these novels want you to be and don’t deviate from the story.

However, by The Spiral‘s conclusion, I was left questioning whether Ryan’s utilisation of the choose-your-own-adventure framework in an experiential* manner was ultimately its weakness. From the outset, it is clear Erma’s narrative is built on shaky ground, anger pulsing behind the aloof veneer. And the second interwoven narrative, that of an amnesiac Seros the Barbarian, initially written in the dictatorial, automaton game-play style, is even harder to engage with.

But my main reservation with this novel’s execution is its brutality. Confronting and brutal truths I admire, and I rarely take issue with violence depicted in fiction. I have a very strong stomach. But The Spiral features both physical and psychological violence taken to the extreme, and this further stripped the characters of their humanity.

Was this in fact Ryan’s intention? I’m not sure. Much thought and effort has clearly been invested in exploring this mystery and related themes on multiple levels, so am certain I would join more clever dots if I read it again. Unfortunately, my lack of engagement with the characters leaves me with little desire to do so.

For my personal tastes, by The Spiral‘s conclusion, its clever seeds had grown into a vine coiling back onto itself. But, this title has earned high praise, so if you did enjoy ‘choose-your-own’ novels when you were young and/or highly experimental adult literature, The Spiral may be an adventure worth taking.

BOOK RATING: The Story 3 / 5 ; The Writing 3 / 5

Get your copy of The Spiral from:

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OR listen to the audiobook FREE with Audible’s Trial (check eligibility)

* Given this title’s interactive elements, I am unclear how it would work in audiobook format.

More The Spiral Reviews

The Spiral keeps you constantly wrongfooted: it’s a book where truth and memories cannot be trusted; where violence and darkness are not always the most terrifying paths you could take.’ – Fiona Hardy, Readings

The Spiral is fast-paced – it’s pretty well impossible to put down – and the underlying story is as shocking as it is sadly predictable in this day and age. The finale, on the other hand, is utterly unexpected, intriguing and sobering’ – Karen Chisholm, The Newton Review of Books

The Spiral is not a standard type of crime thriller. There are numerous chapters about Erma’s inner imaginary life – she dreams of Sero the barbarian, a character created by the book’s creepy villain, author Archibald Moder – and this blend of realism and fantasy may not be everyone’s cup of tea.’ – 3 stars, Martin Chilton The Independent 

About the Author, Iain Ryan

Iain Ryan grew up in the Brisbane suburbs. At the age of seventeen he moved to Gatton (Qld) to attend university. Following a short stint in property economics, Ryan pursued his interest in music and for a number of chaotic (and fun) years performed as a touring musician. Feeling burnt out and on the advice of his therapist, he started writing fiction. In 2015, his first novel, Four Days was published and in 2016 it was shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction. He then wrote The Student (2017) which was also shortlisted. The Spiral is his third novel. He lives in Melbourne. Check out his website and connect with him on Twitter.

This review counts toward my participation in the Aussie Author Challenge 2021.

* My receiving a review copy of The Spiral from the publisher did not impact the expression of my honest opinions above.