The Thing About December is Ryan’s second novel (although actually written first) and follows in the footsteps of his masterpiece The Spinning Heart which won Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards, The Guardian First Novel Award and a longlisting for the Booker. I was expecting great things from this book and I wasn’t disappointed.
The Thing About December is set in the same village as The Spinning Heart, but ten years earlier placing it at the beginning of Ireland’s economic rise. The book’s central character, farmer’s son Johnsey Cunliffe, is a young man bullied for being a bit of a ‘gom’ and living on the edges of society by the ‘yahoos’ who hang around the IRA memorial, jobless and aggressive. Johnsey finds it difficult to relate to others and even more difficult to speak to them, but it is startling how through his point of view we are witness to the most human of emotions: the loneliness of grief brought about by the death of his parents. Although it is clear that Johnsey has been a solitary figure for the majority of his life, he’s always been bolstered by the people who love him, particularly his parents. Now that they’ve gone Johnsey is more alone than ever and ill equipped to deal with the money grabbing community sensing an opportunity arising out of his misfortune.
We follow Johnsey over the course of a year starting in January and ending in December. Each of the chapters begins with a reminiscence of some sort on what either Mother or Daddy thought of those particular months which gives the book a wonderful rhythmic pulse; all the chapters begin this way other than December where instead everything that’s been building throughout the story comes to a head.
Ireland is changing faster than the often slow witted Johnsey can manage. Without his parents he’s at sea in world he can no longer understand, where former friends appear to hound him with their money grabbing ways in the same way as his enemies. When Johnsey is brutally attacked, then hospitalised his life changes. Eye surgery leaves him and another patient, Mumbly Dave, temporarily blind with only each other and the nurse they refer to as The Lovely Voice for company. Following their recovery all three become friends of sorts, but the path ahead is still uncertain for Johnsey.
Ryan’s overriding talent lies in the voices he creates for his characters, something that he achieves by stretching language and the local idiom to its limits. Phrases such as ‘Isn’t it a fright to God to say a man can’t walk home without being tormented by yahoos every single day?’ and ‘Shut up with that auld eejiting, Mother would say’ bring the characters fully on to the page. Ryan’s ear for language was startling clear in The Spinning Heart, narrated by twenty one different voices all clearly different. Here Johnsey tells us his story and although told in the third person there’s no doubt that it is Johnsey’s voice we’re hearing; Ryan is nowhere in sight.
Johnsey feels the weight and expectations of his dead relatives, particularly Daddy, constantly. His farm home is barren and lost without his parents and he realises that the yard and everything in it ‘were shaped by his [father’s] weight and worn by his touch so that no one else could quite fit them’. Johnsey feels their loss so greatly he imagines that the world must be changed by their absence, just as he is, yet he comes to realise ‘there’s an awful cruelty in the business of nature, in the brutal sameness of things. The sky was the same blue the day after Daddy died as it was the day before; the uncaring rain didn’t stop while they buried Mother’. When his tenant, Dermot McDermott, comes to the farm hoping to persuade Johnsey to sell him the land he rents, Johnsey can’t make the decision for fear of upsetting his ancestors and instead of giving Dermot an answer, tells him ‘he didn’t know, he’d have to ask’. When Johnsey realises the stupidity of his answer, we feel his loss and grief as intensely as he does.
This story had the potential to be depressing and dark, but Ryan has a gift for injecting humour into otherwise bleak situations. His characterisation, particularly of Mumbly Dave and The Lovely Voice and the clash between them as they fight over Johnsey’s attentions, is superb and darkly funny.
Any Cop?: Ryan has a magnificent talent and his rhythmic, poetic prose lightens the heart with its beauty and honesty. The Thing About December is a book that gives a voice to those who often haven’t had the opportunity: the marginalised and the innocent who can become lost in a world often dominated by selfishness and avarice.