The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

“It needs to be scraped and sanded and painted and oiled. It still spins in the wind, though. I can hear it creak, creak, creak as I walk away. A flaking, cracking spinning heart.”

Donal Ryan’s debut novel tells the story of a rural town in the wake of Ireland’s financial crisis. There are over a dozen voices in the narrative with each section being dedicated to a first-person narrator in the community. Their unique view points and voices are what make this book a compulsive read. They are there to hide secrets, only to reveal them later, pulling apart the notions that both they and the reader might have had.

The town is suffering from a terrible recession with many of the people out of work or being paid way below the minimum wage. What was once a prosperous area has now been abandoned. The most obvious scars are made apparent right away: ghost estates–the housing developments that were contracted to be built, but after the collapse, now stand incomplete and vacant.

Ryan has done something interesting. Like previously mentioned, each section is dedicated to the narration of a particular resident of the town. The novel begins with Bobby, who is idolized by many and he is still able to get some work as a builder even though the contractors have fled leaving many men out of work. He mentions people in the town, and feelings and opinions he has that certainly come to foreshadow events later on.

Each section is impressively narrated in that person’s specific voice (void of proper grammar in favor of dialect). The characters seem to repeat similar story lines, which the reader at first will tilt their head and go, huh? But it all becomes clearer and more gripping with the introduction of each new section. It would be a fool’s errand to try to keep straight the names and affiliations of everyone mentioned. Just let the prose carry you forward and you will soon have a hold of all of the players and their importance.

The Spinning Heart finds its title from the metal heart that hangs from Bobby’s father’s gate. Any time someone goes through it, they mention how it spins,

There was a red metal heart, spinning in the breeze in the centre of the low front gate. The hinge was loose but rusty, it squeaked and creaked but still allowed that little heart to spin.

Like the heart, the story spins forward. Their derelict landscape, which at first takes up the beginning of the book evolves into a showcase for these character’s lives, until we finally see harsher stories being held right underneath the surface of the novel. When they finally clearly make their way to the forefront, the reader is wrenched by the desperation and exhaustion of everyone involved.

The novel is impressive. It was a pleasure to see how Ryan crafted his prose to hide dark threats and the actual desires of the characters. Parts were unnerving when you could read the inner thoughts of the dastardly characters and feel the anguish of others as it buried itself deep within your own mind.

I’m hesitant to give away much of the plot, because bits of the mysterious element are sprinkled throughout. Like the spinning heart of the novel, I kept moving page after page, feeling the depths of the characters and the desolate world they now live in.

I read about Donal Ryan’s novel last year in the paper (which one, I cannot remember). It detailed how the author was rejected many, many times by UK publishers and then when it was finally picked up, was heralded as one of the best novels of the year. The Spinning Heart was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and won the Book of the Year title from the Irish Book Awards in 2012.  It has just finally become available in the US from Steerforth Press.


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