‘A dark, witty tale of despair and loss’ – The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

drshThe Spinning Heart is set in a small Irish town against the back drop of the financial collapse.  Beneath the surface of this town a tension exists and as the inhabitants speak in their own voices telling a single overlapping story the truth of what happened slowly emerges.  Central to the story is the collapse of Pokey Burke’s construction company and his subsequent disappearance, leaving behind him a half finished housing estate with only two occupiers.  This affects each of the characters in some way, none more so than Pokey’s foreman, Bobby Mahon, who opens the chorus of voices.  Well regarded in the community and married to Triona who speaks to us last of all, newly redundant Bobby is desperate to realise the value of his father’s property, but his father’s health seems to constantly improve:

‘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.’

Once Bobby loses his prime job, where he was ‘clearing a grand a week.  Set for life’, he discovers that all was not as it seemed: Pokey hasn’t paid his ‘stamps’ nor those any of his fellow workers so there’s no money for any of them.   Bobby is left ‘bereft, filling up with fear like a boat filling with water’.

In the centre of Bobby’s father’s gate is a metal spinning heart which with its flaking paint acts as a potent symbol for the loss and despair that permeates the story and the characters’ lives.  As the story unfolds the past constantly intrudes into the present.  We learn of a boy ‘getting shot in his own yard by the guards’, another boy drowned at sea leaving his mother devastated and his uncle blaming himself.  When a boy living on Pokey’s infamous estate is kidnapped, there’s a strong sense that the community cannot bear to lose another; then an unexpected murder exacerbates the situation, forcing the town’s inhabitants to question themselves further.   There’s plenty of drama here and a gripping plot even over the novels short length (less than 160 pages).  In the end though, The Spinning Heart is more than that: it’s a savage attack on those who allowed the boom to flourish and perpetuate until the moment of collapse and who seem, like Pokey Burke, to have got away with it.

Although each of the characters speaks with a strong Irish lilt the voices are each distinctive, no mean feat when you consider that there are twenty one narrators here who speak to us directly only once; loudest by its absence is the voice of Pokey Burke himself.  In some ways this reader felt as though she was sitting in an Irish country pub and the characters were taking it in turns to sit with me and tell their own side of the story, a powerful human impulse summed up by Lily:

‘wasn’t I at least the author of my own tale?  And if you can say that as you depart this world you can say a lot.’

Ryan has presented us with some wonderful, memorable characters here.  Pokey’s father Josie tells us:   ‘I love my first son more than my second son.  I often wonder should I go to confession and purge that from my soul.’  It’s telling that it’s Pokey who is the second son.  Réaltín lives with her young son in one of the two occupied houses.  The father of her child, Seanie, one of Pokey’s labourer’s, is now out of work.  Réaltín’s desperation leads her to lure Bobby to her house for repairs, some of which she engineers deliberately, altering with alarming speed the way the community views Bobby with disastrous consequences.  Amid the darkness and despair are moments of humour and lightness.  A young witness to the apparent murder tells us about his relationship with Bobby:

‘He tried to give me a job one time all right, but I’m not holding that against him.’  Another boy, struggling with speaking to girls with any form of coherence is startled to find that he is able to speak easily to a girl he meets in town ‘probably because I hadn’t been thinking about what I was going to say for five hours before I said it’.

In many ways this is a story of the clash between the old and the new.  The characters speak in the way they’ve spoken for years, with a lyrical, poetic quality that seems at odds with discussions about the closure of the Dell business leaving a woman running a day nursery for the workers’ children suddenly unemployed and cast adrift.  There’s a marked difference between those born and raised in the town and those who are just ‘blow ins’.  Although Mags dislikes the term, questioning whether it’s truly a failing ‘to not have been born and bred here, to have settled in a place outside of the place of your birth.’

Any Cop?:  For all its intricate story and gripping well constructed plot The Spinning Heart is without doubt a novel about the implications of an entire community involved in a single catastrophic event.   In the same way that the characters speak about one thing when they mean something else, so Ryan does here.  Despite its short length this book is not a quick easy read.  It requires the reader to pay close attention to the details, to go back and reassess what’s gone before and work out where it all went wrong, much as Ireland itself must do.   The Spinning Heart is a dark, witty tale of despair and loss.  A wonderful, powerful debut from a writer with an immense talent who fully deserves his place on the 2013 Man Booker longlist.

Julie Fisher


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