The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan is a sharply spun tale from an unnamed Irish town, resonating with familiar societal elements yet crafted with care so that each story gains unique significance and emotional depth. Told from an array of different perspectives – men, women and children, of all ages, backgrounds and circumstances – this is a beautifully crafted collection of interlinked stories that make up a darkly humorous yet profoundly sad and affecting view of life after the financial crash of 2008. Written 10 years ago, reading this now in a time when the world has been seized by a different life-upending crisis, the emotional impact of the stories gains a renewed significance.
These are people who have lived around each other for years but whose lives now, as tensions rise, weave through each other and collide in new ways. The predicaments the characters find themselves in revolve largely, but not solely, around the consequences of the collapse. From ghost estates and business owners disappearing leaving their employees and suppliers high and dry, to relationships suffering under the strain of unemployment and the regret people are left drowning in following the decisions they made; the full spectrum of human experience and emotion, nationally and even universally relatable at its essence, is contained within this little book. From love that blossoms and remains unshakeable in the face of madness, to resentment that festers within families; the bad people who have deceived, and the good people who have been deceived; generational trauma and the pain families cause each other. Ryan’s characters are both the people who have struggled, endured hardship and prevailed, and the people who have shown cowardice when the going gets tough. Exploring mental health and sense of identity in these trying times, we see the compromises people had to make after the crash, the things people felt they had to hide about themselves, and what desperation can lead people to do. Ryan explores all these with both curiosity and compassion and, as the stories progress, we learn new things about the other characters from each narrator.
As always, Ryan’s portrayal of community life is well-observed and humorous; the lively, colloquial language and small-town dynamics are brilliantly captured, this claustrophobic space where families have long-running history and know all about each other, or think they do anyway. The writing occasionally falls into a breathless, almost stream-of-consciousness style, evoking the mental turmoil and anxiety-driven overthinking that so many people fell prey to, while certain recurring expressions he employs are so fitting. He on several occasions writes of people ‘fattening’ themselves on the hard work, the sadness, the misfortune or the gossip about others; a perfect metaphor for a time in which the few gaining significantly resulted in the many suffering greatly.
Book 9 reviewed as part of the #20BooksOfSummer22 reading challenge hosted by Cathy at 746books.com.
The Spinning Heart was published by Doubleday Ireland in 2012 as a co-publication with The Lilliput Press. My copy is a re-issued edition from 2019 by Black Swan Ireland.
Donal Ryan is an award-winning author from Nenagh, County Tipperary, whose work has been published in over twenty languages to major critical acclaim. The Spinning Heart won the Guardian First Book Award, the EU Prize for Literature (Ireland), and Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards; it was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Desmond Elliott Prize, and was voted ‘Irish Book of the Decade’. His fourth novel, From a Low and Quiet Sea, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award 2018, and won the Jean Monnet Prize for European Literature. His last novel, Strange Flowers, was voted Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards, and was a number one bestseller. His most recent novel, The Queen of Dirt Island, has just been published to great acclaim. Donal lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Limerick. He lives with his wife Anne Marie and their two children just outside Limerick City.