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.
Little 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.
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.