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4.2 out of 5 stars
The Spinning Heart
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40 of 41 people found the following review helpful
The Spinning Heart is a metal heart, set in the gate of Frank Mahon's house. It spins round and round in the wind, never going anywhere.

The novel opens with a first person narrative from Bobby Mahon. Bobby was a builder's foreman, working for his old friend Pokey Burke. As is well documented, the Irish economy benefited enormously from a property bubble in the 1990s-2000s and some people got very rich, very quickly. But by the time we meet Bobby, the bubble has burst; the Celtic Tiger has lost its roar. Pokey has scarpered, leaving his workmen and his investors in deep trouble. Bobby's immediate financial problems would be eased greatly if his father would only die and leave Bobby his land whilst it still had some small amount of value. But Frank seems to get healthier by the minute and Bobby sits watching the price of land trickling away to nothing.

After a few pages, the narrative baton passes on to Josie, and then on through a series of 21 different narrators. At first it seems as though each narrator is just giving a different perspective on the same predicament. But as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that each narrative adds to the detail of a quite distinct plot. But given the individual perspectives, it is interesting to sometimes see the same events told through very different lenses. The reader's perceptions of people need to be constantly readjusted.

Telling a story with 21 points of view, none of which is revisited, is an immense feat of skill. That the narratives manage to convince, written in differing voices and dialects that sound authentic and avoid sounding samey, is a work of genius. Donal Ryan avoids the temptation to give characters tics or quirks and this can make the reader want to zip back and check previous passages just to confirm who is who. But at the same time, Ryan uses enough signposts to guide an alert reader around the narrative.

The novel is short, but there's a lot in it and it isn't a terribly quick read. The voices do slow the reader down - and that's necessary if the reader isn't going to miss out on vital detail. There are sub-plots and scheming, most of which make sense. There is an excellent insight into the petty rivalries and jealousies between smalltown Ireland and "the boondocks". The novel is set in Tipperary, but it could just as easily be in Cavan, or Louth, or Offally or Carlow. The shattered dreams are found all over Ireland and these responses to the slump will stand to tell future generations just how bad it got.

The Spinning Heart is a novel that has humanity and warmth amongst the heartbreak. It is compelling reading and has a social importance. And like the spinning heart of the title, it shows that what goes around, comes around.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 31 July 2013
This book fluidly told me its story and hooked me to find out what happens, and not to just to Bobby but all of the 21 main characters plus all of their family and friends - it made me care about them all. I now want to know what happens next; but their lives are, like ours, as the author signals, as yet unwritten but hungry for love. I loved the 'Teapot Taliban' and other evocative expressions, clearly a skilled Irish writer writing about experiences germane to everybody, but from an Irish perspective and reminded me a little of Frank McCourt's and Malachy McCourt's phrasing. It's quite clear to me, having read and enjoyed it 4 times it's that good, that The Spinning Heart is an outstanding book (hence on Waterstones Books of the Year list, the Irish Book Awards Overall Winner of Book of the Year 2012, the Sunday Independent Best Newcomer of the Year Award for 2012, as well as on Man-Booker Shortlist 2013), in which all of the complexities have been laid bare, distilled and made simple to ponder and digest by this skilful writer in which he uses internal voicing. It reminds me of [an internal] Under Milk Wood, which I got out and re-read and also listened to again (Damn, don't we miss Richard Burton!). I would love to hear The Spinning Heart as a play done in a similar way to Under Milk Wood, although with 21 characters (James Nesbitt would make a great Bobby don't you think) instead of Thomas's 38. I put this solidly as a runner for the Man Booker short list as it met my criteria of craving to re-read it, immediately.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 15 March 2014
I bought this excellent novel after reading the author's second book "The Thing About December" first and thoroughly enjoying it. Paradoxically the events of "The Spinning Heart" are set about 10 years after those of "The Thing About December" . "The Spinning Heart" is set in a village in rural Ireland just after the "Celtic Tiger" boom years came to a crashing halt. An important construction employer has gone bust and fled the country leaving behind him a mess; unfinished houses, unemployed workers, penury and mental illness. A gripping plot unfolds as the book devotes a chapter each to a series of characters from the village who tell their own ,often moving , stories . These fascinating accounts all combine to tell a tale of loneliness, violence, frustration and desperation and provide a brilliant snapshot of life in 21st Century Ireland. The author has a great talent for characterisation and all of the characters in this novel, despite often only having a few pages to tell their stories ,are all three dimensional and as large as life, baring their souls for the reader. I have given 5 stars to both of Donal Ryan's novels in my Amazon reviews and I really hope he continues to write such absorbing, page turning , sparkling books in future.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
OK, how good is this opening paragraph?

"My father still lives back in the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in. I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down. He hasn't yet missed a day of letting me down. He smiles at me; that terrible smile. He knows I'm coming to check is he dead. He knows I know he knows. He laughs his crooked laugh. I ask is he okay for everything and he only laughs. We look at each other for a while and when I can no longer stand the stench of him, I go away. Good luck, I say, I'll see you tomorrow. You will, he says back. I know I will."

It does what every good opening paragraph should do, which is to get you interested and to introduce something central to the novel. It beautifully sets up the relationship between Bobby and his father, an unhappy, antagonistic relationship which we come to understand more deeply as the novel progresses.

More broadly, this is a novel about the effects of the financial crisis on a small town in the Irish countryside, and it's told through a wide range of voices - 21 different narrators in total, each one getting just one chapter to state his or her point of view.

Yes, that's a lot of narrators! At first I began to despair at all the jumping around, because it felt as if none of the stories would be adequately resolved. But as the action progressed, it became clear that a story was indeed being told, and being told in a very effective way, because we hear the same information from different people, giving us a very rounded view of events.

The financial crisis hit Ireland hard, and it's very much at the forefront of this novel, with builders going bankrupt, workers being left with no social security payments, people living in half-built housing estates, immigrants who came in the good times being left adrift with no work, locals planning to emigrate in search of better opportunities.

One of the most difficult things about multiple narrators is making each character have a distinctive voice. Ryan achieves this, creating the odd effect of inhabiting multiple realities in quick succession. Here's Lily, a local prostitute:

"Yerra what about it, sure wasn't I at least the author of my own tale? And if you can say that as you depart this world, you can say a lot."

And here's Vasya, an immigrant from Khakassia, on the next page:

"The man's wife scolded him for bringing me. She thought I couldn't understand. She was right and wrong: I didn't know the words, just their meaning."

The rhythms are completely different, and completely authentic to the speech patterns of each character. The narration is always conversational, as if the characters are speaking to us directly, and it's often hilarious. Here's Rory, for example, responding to the priest telling him to do what Jesus would have done:

"How would I know what Jesus would have done? That fella was a mass of contradictions as far as I can see. One minute he says to turn the other cheek, the next minute he's having a big strop and kicking over lads' market stalls."

I'm quoting more than usual from the book, because it's the voices that really make it a success. The novel is by turns funny and sad, and brilliantly evokes the life of a whole town, which is a much more difficult thing to do than evoking the life of an individual person. The constant changes of narrator may put you off at first, but it's worth sticking with it to see how it all comes together. I can see why it made the Booker longlist and won the Guardian First Book Award.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 7 February 2013
I found this book really interesting and I liked its unusual structure. The author has been extremely skillful in giving voice to twenty one different characters. The end result is very convincing and we really get to know the characters, their thoughts and their personalities through their own voices.
The book is also realistic giving the reader a sense of the consequences of the recession in Ireland on people and people's minds.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 28 April 2014
Just a fantastic read very well woven together - I bought a copy for a friend after i had read it and she loved it too. Donal Ryan does the local and colloquial very well and Irish readers would definitely love this or his second book which is very different but equally excellent.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 24 April 2014
After many, many recommendations for this book, I finally got to it and finished it in days, would've been hours if I'd had the spare time! Such a well written and grasping story and I felt like I knew every character in the book, probably because being from 'small town Ireland' I kind of do!
Loved the character development through other characters and the many twists so subtly included.
And reading it whilst living abroad made it even more so enjoyable, reminded me of the many characters and stories, both sad and entertaining I've grown up with over the years.
A must read.
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‘I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down.’

Ireland’s economic crisis, with the crash of the bloated housing market provides the background for Donal Ryan’s first novel which is set in an unnamed rural Irish town. Each of the narrators has been affected in some way by the collapse of the local building firm, which used to be the biggest employer of casual labour in the area. Its owner Pokey Burke has decamped, leaving behind despair. Bobby Mahon is the central character: he had been the respected foreman of Burke’s company, and had been overseeing the rapid construction of a new housing estate.

‘One good thing that happened since the recession started is people will work for less than the minimum wage.’
But, as Bobby and his former labourers discover, the benefits of being paid cash-in-hand are outweighed by a lack of access to any redundancy provision. And the two people living on the half-finished estate are not enjoying it either.

‘Since midsummer things are gone pure haywire.’

There are 21 characters in this novel, each with their own part in a story which draws on the past, dwells in the present and (mostly) fears the future. Each of the characters has their own perspective, each adds to a central story of individuals suffering as a consequence of greed. There are darker and smaller individual disasters in this community as well. The labourers are not the only workers to suffer.

A kidnapping reminds people of other tragedies, and a death bodes badly for Bobby.

‘He was fine except for the drawings all over him and the skinned head. They’ll wash off and his hair will grow back and he’ll forget about the whole thing. May he always be fine and happy, the little darling.’

I could not put this novel down, and at 150 pages I read it in one sitting. Likeable or otherwise, each of the characters has their own individual story and their own interpretation of events. The stories have largely stayed with me.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 7 September 2013
This is oddly reminiscent of "Under Milkwood", perhaps because it uses the poetical yet often also earthy voices of a variety of characters to capture the spirit of a rural community. A short intense and condensed novel, with all the flesh of scene-setting and background information stripped away, it comprises twenty-one internal monologues which combine to show how the collapse of the building boom in Ireland wreaked havoc on the already sad and dysfunctional lives of many ordinary people.

Pain is piled on by the shovel-load, and it would all be unbearably bleak but for the author's ear for the poetry and droll wit of the Irish way with words. There is continuous entertainment in not only the language but the links between the various characters, their different readings of situations, and the poignant plot which gradually emerges around the ever-present figure of the charismatic but troubled Bobby Mahon. Donal Ryan is prepared to take risks: one "voice" is a ghost in limbo, and I was unsure for a while if another was not a "split personality".

If there are flaws in this original book, one is that some of the "losers" portrayed are a little too similar and so seem superfluous, another that many characters share the same streak of repressed violence plus a fundamentally introspective, articulate, self-aware voice that is probably too much that of the author. At times, I felt I was being told too explicitly what to think about a particular person, as in the case of Bobby's embittered father Frank, rather than left to deduce it for myself. The style is less convincing when Ryan abandons his Irish patter, as for patriarch Josie Burke's educated liberal lesbian daughter Mags.

Although my interest flagged a little in the middle of a book which seemed to have "made its point" about the state of Ireland quite quickly, what proves to be a carefully constructed tale twists to an effective ending.

Overall, it is an impressive first novel, which repays a second reading.
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This is Donal Ryan's debut novel which he wrote "in the long summer evenings of 2010". He lives with his wife and two children just outside of Limerick City and was born in north Tipperary.

Whilst it was released in October 2012 I have only recently picked up this book after seeing it make the longlist of the Man Booker Prize 2013.

This is a short novel (160 pages) that documents the monologues of 21 interwoven characters (no less!) following the aftermath of the recent financial crisis in Ireland. It is ambitious for a debut to shed classical form (i.e. proper punctuation and a linear narrative) in favour of a more honest and colloquial style but this modernity actually helps to enhance the necessary feeling of empathy that glues these chapters together. The book is instantly engaging but does become slightly weighed down in the middle by its colloquialism that at times is almost gossipy; to follow from this I also think a couple of the characters were not necessarily relevant. Aside from this heaviness in the middle it is a book that does eventually reward and stays with the reader for a while after too.

The delusion and greed that propelled the Irish property bubble (and every other such Financial bubble) is not so apparent at the time - indeed if you ask anyone in financial markets, its only with the benefit of hindsight that we can see the error of our ways - ironically its a tragedy of human evolution that we continually repeat the errors of the past. But without going off on too much of a tangent the key wisdom is that "its only when the tide goes out that you discover who's been swimming naked". This novel is an arresting tale of the hopes and promises that propel a society into an unsustainable state and then the subsequent truth and insight that is learnt when the proverbial hits the fan.

As each character retrospectively looks back on their lives there is an ongoing sense of sadness and regret about the way "nature overpowers" and deceives them; this tragedy is persistent throughout the novel. But perhaps the most moving passages of the book focus more on the revelations of how each character perceives one another. It is heartbreaking that despite all of our hopes and fears, reality is inevitably so far removed from our perception.

This is not just 21 separate stories - there is an interlinking plot that materialises towards the end that provides a backbone for the anthropological wisdom and amidst the chitter-chatter there are some wonderfully poetic phrases that resonate with you for long after you put the book down.

Donal Ryan's powerful debut is not fuelled with optimism but serves as a pragmatic reminder that "where light shines, a shadow is cast".
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