Donal Ryan: The Spinning Heart (2012)

The Spinning Heart

Irish writer Donal Ryan’s first book  The Spinning Heart is less a novel than a chorus. A chorus of 21 voices telling, stating, deploring, accusing and confessing things that are on their mind, things they want to commit or have committed, things they should have done or could have done. While each of them gives us a slice of individual life, in his or her unique voice, using their idiom or vernacular, they are linked because of the recession that has hit them hard. Most of the professional life in this small rural community was tied to the building firm of Pokey Burke who fled the country, leaving his former employees without pension or income. He’s also responsible for a ghost estate, in which one of the narrators, Réaltín, her little boy, and one elderly woman live. The other houses haven’t been finished and Réaltín’s house has a lot of shortcomings too.

The book opens with Bobby’s voice and closes with Triona, Bobby’s wife. In between are the 19 others. Former workers of Pokey, his father and many more. What struck me the most was that every chapter really sounded as if a person was talking to us. The voices are each so intimate and distinctive. Some focus on the present moment and the recession, some go way back. What we read paints an astounding portrait of Irish society, the things that have been the same for decades, like the weight of the Catholic Church, and those that have drastically changed, like the economy. Some voices are shocking, some are heartbreaking, some belong to very young children, some to old people, most to those who have been the most affected by the recession- people between 18 and 60+.

While all these lives have been marked by Pokey and his real estate fraud, there are also two thin plot lines which link all the people: the abduction of Réaltín’s boy and the murder of Bobby’s father. With these to plots the book transcends the economy theme and encompasses more universal topics like family and relationships.

The Spinning Heart is an amazing piece of writing and I’m not surprised Donal Ryan won the guardian First Book Award. Creating 21 distinctive voices is an achievement but to tell 21 touching life stories and to capture a whole country even more so.

33 thoughts on “Donal Ryan: The Spinning Heart (2012)

  1. I had heard really good things about this book. I really like books that cover a large number of first person narratives like this one does. It sounds as if bookending the narratives with Bobby and Bobby’s wife is a neat idea.

  2. I’ll echo Cathy’s comments on your ‘chorus’ analogy! I read this one last year and had a lot of time for it, although some of the voices have remained in my mind while others have faded. Bobby, Réaltín, Triona and Pokey are the characters I recall most vividly.

    • Some stand out more, that’s for sure but what makes it amazing, in my opinion, is how they form a whole. I’ll remember Réaltín the longest, I think.

  3. You are a lot more positive than I on ‘The Spinning Heart’. I felt the writer saw Ireland regressing back to a more primitive society due to the economic downturn, and he thinks that is a good thing.

    • Strange. That’s not how I read it at all. On the very contrary. I found it was extremely critical of Catholicism and “the old ways”. But he certiaily showed how the real estate bubble affected Ireland. Much more than most other European countries – with the exception of Spain, if I’m not wrong – . Something that could never happen in Switzerland.

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  5. I’ve found that I enjoy connected short stories presented in a novel-length format. Last year I read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, which is described as a “novel in stories.” I liked how she weaved the seemingly different tales to form a cohesive picture about this one small town.
    Thanks for the great review. I’ll definitely add this one to my TBR list.

    • Thanks for reminding me. I’ve still not read it. I think this is a bit different as they aren’t really short stories but more like monologues. But whatever you’ll call them , I think they’re outstanding. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  6. This sounds like something I would really enjoy. I love novels and books that have several different characters that are somehow connected, but you still get their stories. Sounds very clever.

  7. This looks like a really fascinating book, Caroline. I knew that Donal Ryan’s book was about the economic depression, but I didn’t know that there was a chorus of voices in the book. I think in structure, it seems to resemble Roberto Bolano’s ‘The Savage Detectives’, in which also there are many voices telling their stories and describing their relationships with the main character. I remember you trying to read it sometime back – were you able to finish it? Did you like it? I will look for Donal Ryan’s book. Thanks for this beautiful review.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I’m glad you liked the review. I’m sure this is a book for you. I found it profound and so well written.
      I never finished the Savage Detectives. Donal Ryan’s book is very short – 160 pages. And it spoke to me more.

  8. I was tempted by this one when it came into my library–will have to grab it and take a longer look. Didn’t it also get longlisted for the Booker last year (or maybe I am thinking of the Guardian prize?). I like the idea of a chorus–what a great analogy!

    • When you read it, I’m sure you’ll see why I called it a chorus. The voices are so different, you really feel you’re hearing them talk to you.
      I found it pretty amazing.

  9. This one keeps popping up for me, and you make a strong case for it. I’m concerned though at the crime element, it seems fantastical (given how few of us actually encounter kidnapping or murder) and an odd thing for a sideplot. Do those elements mesh well with the wider economic themes, which I’d have thought enough on their own?

    • I think they do mesh enough. They were not necessary plot elements but I didn’t think they were unbelievable. You’d be surprised how often I’ve encountered murder, met people who committed a crime “of passion”, whose mother killed their father, who . . . -and I live in a country that’s not ever been economically challenged so far. However, one of the two would have been enough and there’s a twist.
      I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Interestingly, I’ve read a couple of reviews – newspaper – and they didn’t mention the murder.

  10. Sounds great. I’ve seen one of these ghost towns in Ireland, it’s positively creepy. Nobody was living there but I can’t imagine what it must be to live in such an “estate”.

    I wonder if Leroy has read it.

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