The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

Reading Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart is to wake up in the heart of a struggling suburban neighbourhood where overnight the fate of a significant proportion of its population has changed.

Spinning HeartLittle time elapses between the pages of the novel, sufficient to penetrate the perspective of 21 residents of this neighbourhood, a chapter each.  Rather than a plot, this one event is more of a turning point from which we survey each character from their own and multiple perspectives, gradually creating a picture of this community, where perceptions often outweigh and overrule reality.

That event is the discovery that Pokey Burke has disappeared after a dodgy property deal in Dubai halts all work on his property developments in this Irish suburb.  He has absconded from his responsibilities including all those in his employ (at least they thought they were in his employ), those who thought they were doing okay in these hard times find out that not only do they no longer have a job, they have never been registered as employees.

Donal Ryan unmasks his characters in the single chapter he gives them each to speak (ironically, no chapter is given to Pokey Burke), this is no slow build up to revealing a characters inner thoughts, they are not characters prone to thinking about various options, this is a neighbourhood in which its men rarely ponder anything, their thoughts are often aggressive, misogynistic and raw, many of them are of the act now, think later persuasion. They make for uncomfortable reading and have the reader yearning for a fictional reprieve; could we have one character to latch onto to get us through this discomfort please?

And if we find it partially, it is with Bobby, the foreman whom we meet in the first chapter, on his daily walk to check whether his father is dead yet, something he wishes for that we will come to know more about as threads of his story snake through other chapters, so that we do meet him again and are able to follow his destiny.

“But the things Dad said, and the way he said them, were so scarily unlike him, so cutting, so cruel. That’s just the way he was reared, Ger reckons. She says people’s thoughts, when their upbringing is mired in dogma, aren’t really their own. Their opinions are twisted, not reflective of what’s in their souls; their words are delivered obliquely, like light being refracted through water – you can’t see their real feelings, just as you can’t see the true position of an immersed object.”

So much of what we experience is illusion, many people and situations hide another reality, nothing is what it seems.  Deception is normal, no one wishes to dig too deep to understand, empathy is an unknown concept, we too often ignore instinct, judge quickly and crush the weak and sensitive.

A disturbing read, unputdownable at the same time as not wanting to pick it up, the anticipation that maybe there is some good that can come of the situation, keeps us reading on. These are tough times and perhaps the bad karma of a financial crisis brought about by those who practice greed, corruption and a lack of empathy brings out the worst at every layer of society. It is certainly difficult to navigate the mire and find the seeds of hope.

Booker Longlist

Man Booker Longlist 2013

Donal Ryan is one of three Irish authors longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013 and a debut author, who is becoming as well-known for his perseverance (his manuscript was rejected 47 times) as he is for this contemporary work which digs under the skin of small town rural Ireland.

Note: This book was an ARC (advance reader copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

17 thoughts on “The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

  1. Nice review, Claire. I love the title of the book – ‘The Spinning Heart’. I was expecting it to be a soft, gentle book, because of its beautiful title. It looks like the only thing soft about the book is its title. From your review, this book looks quite powerful but difficult to read. It is hard when we can’t adopt a character in a story so that we could follow his / her fortunes. It is nice to know that there are three Irish authors in this year’s Booker longlist. It is also wonderful to know that Donal Ryan had 47 rejections before he got his book published. He is very strong, brave and persistent and it is very inspiring to read about it. Thanks for this wonderful review.


    • Thank you for your always kind and thoughtful comments Vishy. Reading your own expectation from the title makes me understand even more now why I chose that quote on the right hand side of the page about the spinning heart, because within this one extract, there is much to be said about the entire book and perceptions of a spinning heart.

      There is Bobby, who we perceive as being more gentle, but that is something we learn as we read on, as from the very first lines of the book, even he we are unsure about. The classic misunderstood character.


  2. What a great idea. You know years ago I lived on a great street. It was a dead end, across from a huge park, with only about 12 semi-detached homes on it. We were a tiny, little community nestled away, off a main downtown street. Most people didn’t even know the street existed. Everyone on the street was a character. We were all very different — ages, occupations, marital status, but it didn’t matter. We were very close. We hung out together and watched out for each other. But it was odd we could do that, given how totally different we all were. I always though it would be great fun to produce a play about our street. A satire, really. Mel Brooks would have had a field day with us, I know. It never occurred to me it could be a book and each one of us could have had a chapter. Maybe that should go on my I-want-to-write-another-book list. In the meantime, I think maybe The Spinning Heart should go on my want-to-read list. Thanks, Claire 🙂


    • Your book already sounds great and I would love to read in on the inside of all those charcters and what they are really thinking and saying behind closed doors, the imagination could have a field day – of course your character is Little Miss Optimist, always seeing the bright side and good in everyone 🙂 but does illusion lurk behind any of those doors? Only the novelist can probe within and find out!


  3. Sounds like an interesting read with a creative take on narrative. I’ll have to add this book to my reading list for sure.


  4. Your reviews are always outstanding, seeming always to reveal the heart and soul of a novel in such a lovely and insightful way. I love the quote you provided–the insight and wisdom the author shows there has hooked me for sure. This is a book and an author I want to read. Thanks for introducing me!


  5. Can’t help but agree with Vichy’s comment re: the title, which I do love. And I can’t help but think that a novel rejected 47 times is one that’s a bit outside the narrative box . . . .which only intrigues me more. Can’t wait to get my hands on this one.


  6. Pingback: We Need New Names | Word by Word

  7. Pingback: Man Booker Prize Longlist 2013 | Word by Word

  8. Pingback: All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan – Word by Word

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s