The Spinning Heart was the first published novel by Donal Ryan, and tells the tale of small town life in Limerick. The story is told as a collection of interwoven short stories. There is a continuous narrative through the book, it is just told from a variety of perspectives and viewpoints. The characters in the novel are generally known to each other, as you would expect from small town life. The characters are friends, co-workers, family members and a variety of other small connections. The other characters are often mentioned in passing by the story tellers, and sometimes characters come to the fore ground that played a tiny role in the previous story.
The book was first published in 2012, and as you would expect from any tale of Ireland in this era, the recession is prominent and the affect it has had on each of their lives. There are a variety of builders, who have struggled with the move from people with more work than they could handle to people with nothing to do with their time. There are tales of people trying to get money back from those that owe them, to tales of impending emigration from young people who see it as the only alternative.
The main protagonist of the novel is Bobby Mahon, he is the voice of the first chapter, and he is mentioned in almost every chapter after. He was the local GAA football star, leading their club team to the county final. Since then he has settled into life as a builder with his wife Triona and their one son. We hear of his early life and his brute of a father, who made his childhood extremely difficult through his drinking and his psychological abuse. His life has changed dramatically over the last few years, and he has moved from someone who had a clear and defined future to someone to is struggling to get by.
Some of the short stories are more successful than others, and it seems to come down to how he clear the character’s voice is in the author’s head. One of the characters is Vasya, the ‘Russian’ who emigrated from Khakassia, and through a variety of jobs ended up in Limerick. His story doesn’t work as well as many of the others, but you feel the writer doesn’t know his subject matter as he does the Irish characters. I guess the old adage of ‘write about what you know’ comes to mind.
There are two main story arcs that are carried through the work as a whole, and they are surprisingly large in nature, the stuff of thrillers. Either story would have been dramatic enough, but the style of delivery means they are almost inconsequential, as they are delivered in passing in other people’s stories.
This is a rich and wide tapestry that takes in many different perspectives on life in Limerick. It helps put a face on the statistics of unemployment and the devastation it causes on the sense of well being of a community. This work may end up being the definitive fictional work on Ireland during the current recession, and has a clear grasp on the impact the change in our collective circumstances has had on many small towns around Ireland.
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan is published by Random House.