Kidnap, betrayal, violence, affairs and heartbreak – in Donal Ryan’s début The Spinning Heart tensions are simmering very close to the surface.
Taking home Book of the Year at last year’s Irish Book Awards, and recently longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Guardian First Book Award, Donal Ryan's The Spinning Heart is setting the literary world alight.
The novel is set in the wake of the financial crash in rural Ireland. Ryan says that although he did not deliberately set out to write a novel about the recession, “if you set any work of fiction in contemporary Ireland it [the economic crash] is going to be a huge factor, it’s unavoidable really. Because it is just everywhere, it permeates every level of society; everyone in Ireland has been affected in some way.”
Giving a glimpse of the impact of the economic crash through the eyes of 21 very different characters, The Spinning Heart is a stream-of-consciousness portrait of the frailties of the human heart in a place where although everyone is struggling, everyone is trying to put on as brave a face as possible.
“The crash is pretty much the first topic of conversation for everyone and you hear people all the time saying that they don’t read newspapers anymore or listen to the radio because all they hear is doom and gloom about the Troika and the recession and it’s just too much for people. But you don’t really hear people’s real stories," Ryan says. "People tend to just say the broad strokes of their lives. They don’t go into too much detail, because in rural Ireland there is a little bit of a shame attached to hardship, so I wanted to write people’s stories as they would tell them if they were unfettered and in confidence.”
The Spinning Heart
In The Spinning Heart a young boy is kidnapped and town hero Bobby Mahon is accused of murdering his father – two events that bring the novel’s 21 voices together. From the much-respected Bobby to his nemesis Pokey Burke, who shafts all of his employees and runs off to Dubai after his construction company collapses, to Triona, Bobby’s ever-patient wife, and Réaltín, a frustrated young single mother, the characters have all had tough lives and are all equally flawed.
It is Lily, the town’s prostitute, that Ryan says he has “the least affinity with, but she just flew out of the page, it was amazing, it really was. It felt as though she had been written for me. Seanie Shaper (one of the many local lads who worked for Pokey and the father of Réaltín’s son Dylan) made me sad to write as he gets to the lowest point of any of the characters, and there are hundreds of guys like Seanie who suffer from depression and would never talk about it, who wouldn’t in a million years talk about how they feel.”
The Spinning Heart is rife with alcoholism and the violence that often follows it; something that Ryan says can be fuelled by small-town life. “I think a lot of people never ever speak about their demons or things that hurt them deep inside. There has never been a culture of therapy in Ireland, it’s starting to happen now, but I think generations of people went their whole lives with things just buried down inside of them and if you subvert your feelings for that long, it is going to come out in some way.”
As much a novel about fathers and sons as it is a novel about the economy, The Spinning Heart takes a heartbreaking look at the effect of cruel and distant parenting – told most beautifully through the relationship between Bobby and his cold father Frank.
Ryan says: “I was about 15 when I started to really see the world clearly. Growing up I thought that all parents were like mine and when I found out that some guys had fathers that weren’t like mine, I was shocked. That notion stuck with me; I kind of got obsessed with this idea of a guy who didn’t love his kids the way my father loved me. Who would treat them badly, or go out and get drunk and wreck the house. I had in my head I’d try to write about it to see it more clearly and feel the emotions that other people might feel.”
When the novel moves into Frank’s perspective, we see that his own father was violent and unloving and Ryan says he: “wanted to make it as real as possible, so I think I kind of redeemed Frank a little bit, I tried to make it apparent when you find out what his father did to him that he did love Bobby really, he just couldn’t express it.”
The Thing About December
Ryan has completed another novel, The Thing About December, which is “set in the same village, there are a few characters that cross over but it’s a more traditional third-person linear narrative, about the effects of cruelty and isolation.” He is working now on a third novel about a young teacher who has an affair with a young traveller and winds up getting pregnant and as for whether all of his novels will be set in Ireland, Ryan says: “why not? William Faulkner set all his novels in the same county in America, so why not."
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan is out now, published by Doubleday.