Ever since the publication of Donal Ryan’s first novel, The Spinning Heart (2012), we have been given a writer who cherishes voice. Often these voices are the voices of the disadvantaged, people whose voices we could say have been silenced, like the victims of the Irish housing crash in his aforementioned first novel, or the naive and bereft Johnsey Cunliffe from The Thing About December (2013). But then we also get glimpses into the guilty and those who have been doing the silencing, like the father of the crooked boss Pokey Burke, in The Spinning Heart, and John, in the novel in question here. This time we start with Farouk, though. From Syria, he is attempting to make an escape to Europe with his family. We read as his story connects with Lampy, a twenty-something driving a minibus for the old and infirm as job whilst still living with his mother and grandfather, and then John, a repenting ex-lobbyist dogged by his dreams, childhood and guilt.
It seems though in writing these novels, Ryan also has to contend with his own whispering voices when he creates, one that, he admitted in a recent interview, says ‘You’re a fraud. You’ve never actually felt this.’ Perhaps this is symptomatic of our times and in our liberal culture to ‘truthfully’ give voice to those designated as the ‘disadvantaged’, without feeling some kind of inhibiting middle-class self-consciousness, might not so seamlessly be done. Alas, those of a more confessional constitution might be inspired to put some of that anxiety on the page. With Ryan though, he creates characters who are so intimately internalised that, even when writing in the third person, it feels like he’s writing the disembodied and self-alienating voices that we all possess that can speak against our selves; the battle we have between what is internal and self-developed as opposed to an external and appropriated that can make its home in our minds over time. Something Ryan we’ve seen admits to having himself, and keeps to himself, when writing his fiction.
Inevitably, Joyce comparisons have been made with Ryan. I made them with The Spinning Heart, but it’s not necessarily the writing – because we shouldn’t be confusing these ‘voices’ as streams of consciousness – but instead the environment in which Ryan situates his characters. Religious imagery pervades the novel. Desires are moral quandaries and fathers are proxy and allusive. At one point when a fellow exile says to Farouk, ‘We glimpse the next world in our dreams anyway; it would be more than that, a dream I’d never awake,’ we feel like we’ve rewritten Stephen Dedalus’ formulation of history and nightmares.
What there is though that doesn’t always get accounted for in Ulysses because it is so streamed in the consciousness, is the amount of conflict it insinuates and writes around. Of course it was written during a great, global conflict and when Bloom remarks ‘Funerals all over the world everywhere every minute…Thousands every house. Too many in the world’ we could have an epigraph for Ryan’s novel. Ryan’s characters want to escape conflict but are unavoidably drawn to it. Incredibly proximate both internally and externally, anxieties that the characters battle seem to be on every page and every decision comes with the conflict of its options made apparent. It was the sight of a crucified boy for Farouk though that ‘swung the argument’ in his decision between staying or leaving his war-torn home of Syria:
‘Farouk had been resisting until then, saying, Let’s just see what the next month brings, whether this will pass. No one would dare touch us and the fighting is still mostly far away; the front may even be retreating, not coming closer. Then the pooled blood in the crucified boy’s bare feet, purplish and distended as though they might at any second burst like berries swollen on the vine, the plastic cable ties pulled to the last of their tolerance above the ankles; his curiously pale hands.’
Although Farouk’s own battle is the debate over what to do about a battle that is ‘mostly’ far away, all the reader can see here is conflict of the civil war and then the conflict of his own internal decision-making process. A civil war between body and mind you might say and in this visceral description of the crucified child rendered in stasis, is a powerful image for the existential fear that underpins the novel: not moving. ‘Stillness makes things worse’ John even says at one point. You’ll lose count of the amount of times for instance the characters seem to be using their hands because for Farouk, Lampy and John it’s apparent that their movement, life, is not in their hands. They are not in control. They grasp and grab like Lampy who, at one point, chasing a woman he is in love with, gropes her in a car before she hits him for doing so. By the next paragraph Lampy is in a fight, grappling, and then on the next page he’s wrestling his grandfather away from the phone whilst he tries to call the girl’s mother in Lampy’s support. Indeed, to lamp somebody in my school playground meant to hit them.
John’s story is different in that it’s confessional, first person, and the battle is more to do with how the voice can affect where it might have already altered the course of events. In a Lear-like declaration he says ‘My story my something out of nothing, replicated itself like a monster virus…you can make something out of nothing father.’ Indeed, as an ex-lobbyist you could argue that he sees the restorative power in language and is taking the opportunity to ‘mend his speech.’
Whether or not you’re on board with the way the narratives interweave at the end, it’s unavoidable to say now, that in Ryan, we have a writer who is carving out an eminent oeuvre. A writer who’s next publication, I will at least, await with excitement.
Any Cop?: There’s not the energy to get into a debate about the virtues of the Man Booker Prize, but you might debate, quite cynically, that the way the narrative coalesces is some implicit desire to create more marketable, wholesome fiction; something that he didn’t feel that he had to do in earlier novels. Even if Ryan wins the grand prize or doesn’t, this shouldn’t, and is unlikely, to diminish his importance on the contemporary scene.