The Spinning Heart
A Novel by Donal Ryan
2012 /160 pages
The picture on the front cover depicts a gate, with the picture on the Irish cover going further and depicting a red heart in the centre of the gate. The reason for this detail, and a detail best provided by the Irish cover, is provided to the reader at the very outset of the book. Bobby Mahon opens The Spinning Heart by saying he dutifully goes to check on his father each day at the cottage he was raised in. He goes there each day to check to see if the old man has died yet – and Bobby is disappointed every one of those days – for no, unfortunately, he has not. As for the gate:
“There’s a red metal heart in the centre of the low front gate, skewered on a rotating hinge. It’s flaking now; the red is nearly gone. It needs to be scraped and sanded and painted and oiled. It still spins in the wind, though. I can hear it creak, creak, creak as I walk away. A flaking, creaking, spinning heart.”
The Spinning Heart found its way on to my “To Be Read” pile long before I saw it listed as “Booker Potential” material. I’m not sure how I came across it, I just remember seeing that cover, reading the description and thinking it sounded like something I would want to read. The current affairs of economic woe in Ireland and what I imagined to be the modern and/or current day story told in The Spinning Heart was what peaked my interest. The “desperation” of Irish to flee their continuous economic woe is oft read about. Indeed, a recent newspaper article told a tale in which work visas for Irish to work in Canada sold out in a dizzying two days. Times are increasingly becoming tougher for the youth in Ireland.
Therefore, when it came time for us to predict what we thought would appear on the Man Booker Longlist, I guessed at this one as appearing. Perhaps only doing so because it was a book I already wanted to read. I also had no idea it was rejected 47 times before it was finally published. Now that’s perseverance at its finest! And more than likely a solid dose of true Irish spirit!
The Spinning Heart should not be noted for its plot. The plot is absent here. It is a wholly character-driven novel. 21 of them to be exact. Each chapter is a new character. We never hear from the same character twice, although some characters, such as Bobby and Pokey, are a common thread throughout other’s testaments. At times, those 21 characters share similar stories, so it tends to wear down on the reader, well, for me it did. There isn’t a great deal of connection between each of the characters either, except for perhaps Bobby and Pokey. Pokey was one of the main employers of the village men before he took off, leaving all those that worked for him high and dry. He paid them in cash so again betrayed and tricked them when they tried to receive the dole, as there are no employment records for any of them. However, this connection is abandoned in the later chapters. Then there is Bobby Mahon, the first character we meet, the owner of the red metal heart gate, well, his father’s gate. About half way through we come to learn that Bobby may have gone off and killed his father. But that doesn’t become the only source of “violence” in the village. And it’s not a connecting factor in other chapters.
These chapters are all individual characters studies and had me having flashbacks to my graduate class, ”Issues in Education”. We studied a whole lot of “masculinity” and the definition and maintenance of masculinity, along with the preservation of the male identity. The Spinning Heart provides a wealth of examples in each chapter to link to these masculinity studies. It is most certain that the Irish male identity would taking a beating in times of great economic hardship perpetuating the stereotype of the drunken Irish man. Here, Ryan deftly crafts stunning character studies.
“Mammy told Daddy I was a better earner than him because I bring in a hundred and fifty euros a month and he brings in sweet fuck all. I heard her say this before too. The child brings in more than you Hughie; the child brings in more than you.”
“I haven’t a snowball’s chance in hell of a job. I’m owed a small fortune. The sky is falling down. I drove around the country for weeks looking for Pokey Burke and Conleth Barry and four or five more bollockses that owe me money. I had the taxman roaring in one ear and the lads roaring in the other ear, and plant strewn all over the country. I done four or five jobs there I was never paid a cent for.”
HIs mother had a fool made out of him, kissing him and telling him we was beautiful every two minutes. I was forced to bring balance. I had to prepare him for the hard world. Where light shines a shadow is cast; that’s an elementary thing that every boy must be taught, especially boys that are mollycoddled by their mothers.”
Yet, you are continuously being introduced to a dizzying amount of new characters and it does wear thin on you. It’s not a lengthy novel, only a slim 160 pages, but it started to feel as though I’d been reading it forever. The “violence” that occurs as noted in the synopsis is not really what you imagined it to be, and is only diffuse and brief in the overall story. On the whole, each character’s narration features many moments of enjoyable reading, although the continued appearance of more people, some that tell a too similar story to others made me weary and grow tired of reading at times. I would be remiss though in saying I wasn’t drawn to a great number of these stories, especially those of Bobby, Jim, Frank and finally Triona. Perhaps I’m particularly drawn to these as they were the ones to feature the most connectivity to each other.
Is The Spinning Heart a contender for the shortlist? It’s truly hard to say at this point in time, as this is only my second read from the Longlist. It does solidly portray a contemporary Ireland through varied and individual voices and as this synopsis below states, it is technically daring and unique with a number of poignant moments. I will say 3.5 stars for The Spinning Heart – very good. I’ll have a better feel for its shortlist capabilities following a few more reads from the Longlist.
The Spinning Heart speaks for contemporary Ireland like no other novel. Wry, vulnerable, all-too human, it captures the language and spirit of rural Ireland and with uncanny perception articulates the words and thoughts of a generation. Technically daring and evocative of Patrick McCabe and J.M. Synge, this novel of small-town life is witty, dark and sweetly poignant.