This past summer a friend of mine went to Ireland on vacation, so I asked him to bring me back a novel or story collection by some up-and-coming Irish writer I might not have heard of here in Canada. What he returned with was Donal Ryan’s 2012 debut novel, The Spinning Heart. For a long time I put off reading it for one reason alone: the title; I feared sentimentality. But this past week I gave it a go, and I’m glad that I did.
The pleasure of reading a good novel goes beyond what the actual story is. In fact, I would argue it’s never what the story is about but how it is told. Similar in approach to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, each chapter of Ryan’s novel is told through a different first-person narrator; only in this case there are 21 unique voices. Set in an unnamed Irish village not long after the collapse of the economic bubble of the late 90’s-early 2000’s, The Spinning Heart revolves around Bobby Mahon, a hard-working, shy and modest, well-respected member of this small community. He works in construction, building housing estates for the cowardly yet underhanded Pokey Burke. But when the economy crashes and Pokey skips the country for Dubai, Bobby and his co-workers are left unpaid and out of work. After Bobby tells us his story in the first chapter, various members of this town one-by-one step forward to relay their own stories. Among the characters we hear from is Vasya, a migrant worker from Siberia, who also worked for Pokey and will likely need to go back home penniless; Réaltín, one of the few people who live in the “ghost estate” Pokey built and, as rumour has it, may be having an affair with Bobby; and Timmy, a character Ryan uses to employ an oft-used trope: that of the slightly dim-witted, ingenuous witness to some incriminating evidence but who is unsure of the full meaning of what he overheard. The only character that never offers his own version of events is Pokey himself.
Not only do the various voices add complexity and richness to the main narrative, but as each first-person speaker “confesses” to the reader we also learn of their own personal tragedies and struggles. Bridie’s story, for instance, about the drowning of her son is particularly moving. And Bobby’s abusive father’s story of the childhood abuse he himself experienced is also painful to read. Various “ah-ha” moments transpire throughout the novel as we start to make connections between the various characters, propelling a plot that begins to transform when we learn of a murder, then later of a child being abducted. In a way, this indirect and backward-glancing approach to story telling is somewhat redolent of Rachel Cusk’s recent novels (Outline, Transit, and Kudos) in which numerous characters tell the first-person narrator their own stories that implicitly reflect the larger life story of the narrator.
Adding further richness to Ryan’s work is the very thick Irish brogue—loaded with sometimes unrecognizable local slang and poor grammar—with which each of his characters speak, making for a reading experience that is practically an audible one. And yet this multiplicity of speakers is also what constitutes the novel’s detraction: that most of these voices—with only a few exceptions—are far too similar to each other; and given that 21 characters tell their own stories, it can be a bit confusing, necessitating frequent page-flipping to make sense of who is who. But maybe that’s precisely the point: all these voices speak to that other very Irish characteristic (or that of any small town anywhere): gossip, and how our understanding of other people and the kind of judgments we form about them is often the result of title-tattle, particularly in small towns where everyone knows everyone else’s business. And given the bleak prospects these characters share, the personal struggles each undergoes, and the tragic events that unfold, it’s enough to leave any heart spinning.