The thing about December is Donal Ryan’s first novel, even though it was the second to be published. As he says himself, he sent it to over 47 publishers who all rejected it. He figures the number of rejections is closer to 100 but that 47 is the number of rejection letters he received. He wrote the book at the same time as holding down a full time job and didn’t have time to be selective about the publisher it was sent to, so instead sent it to as many as possible. The scatter gun approach was not successful this time, but it is always a struggle for a new voice to be heard.
The book tells the story of a self confessed gom, Johnsey Cunliffe. A gom is not a term that translates easily as it is very Irish. It is a word for someone who is not the brightest and that is clearly the case here. We are never told of any exact ailment that Johnsey suffers from, other than that he is a beat behind the bar, someone that struggles to get by in the modern age. At a recent talk, Donal Ryan described Johnsey as a composite of every quiet man he has met, people who are not able to articulate their emotions.
The book is broken into twelve chapters in the form of months and opens in January, where Johnsey’s father has recently died. He lives with his mother in their family home with a farm attached. They have rented out the land, as Johnsey is not able to work it. He has a job in the local co-op which his father got for him. He walks there every day past the man who bullied him through his school years, who is now an unemployed and drinks on the street corner daily. When his mother unexpectedly dies, Johnsey is left alone in the world, and with no one to look after his best interests. He is an innocent exposed to the world, with few feeling sorry for him or on his side.
On the outside, this may sound like just another book dealing with a slightly odd young man in a rural society, and this is possibly the reason it was over looked by many publishers, but this book captures something much more intense. It exposes the loneliness and sadness of this man’s life, and also those that try to take advantage of him. The reader will struggle not to worry for Johnsey and the choices he makes. Johnsey is not portrayed as a flawless individual but he is extremely likeable and rewarding character. While the subject matter of the Spinning Heart may be more relevant to our nation’s present status, this book is no less insightful and the depth developed in the main character is very impressive.
The Thing About December is published by Random House.