Johnsey is a brilliantly drawn character reminiscent of the childlike Lennie in Of Mice and Men (Penguin Classics). A gentle, simple soul who is virtually incapable of expressing himself verbally, Johnsey maintains a convincing inner dialogue throughout the book, taking the reader, month by month, through the tragic events that happen in one year of his life and the misconceptions of others around him that lead to such shocking consequences for all concerned.
Donal Ryan's writing is exceptional: bringing a smile to the face almost as often as his tender words bring tears to the eyes. "He heard Daddy one time saying he was a grand quiet boy to Mother when he thought Johnsey couldn't hear them talking....He heard the fondness in Daddy's voice. But you'd have fondness for an auld eejit of a crossbred pup that should have been drowned at birth."
Apparently, this book is the prequel to Donal Ryan's much-acclaimed debut, The Spinning Heart, which I have not as yet read but this poignant tale can stand on its own. And stand proudly. A genuinely touching experience and a magnificent achievement.
Set in the same village as in Ryan's highly acclaimed previous novel The Spinning Heart, The Thing in December uses a more traditional third-person linear narrative to tell the story of Johnsey Cunliffe, in 12 chapters that cover one year of his life. Johnsey is not quite as other people and finds it hard to find his place in the world, especially the world of a small Irish community. Regularly bullied, without friends, struggling to make sense of the world around him, he is particularly vulnerable when his parents die and he is left completely alone.
The novel is during the days of the Celtic Tiger and the boom in property prices. Johnsey owns land, land that has now become extremely valuable and it seems that everyone around him wants to take advantage of his innocence and force him to sell the land that he so dearly wants to hold on to, for it is all that he has left of the happier times when he was safe at home with his loving parents. He simply doesn't understand why he should be willing to give it up. Some of the locals seem eager to help him, and even appear to befriend him, but Ryan skilfully conveys a feeling of mounting dread as the reader begins to understand what is going on behind the scenes as the pressure is put on Johnsey to sell.
This is a heartrending and moving story. The descriptions of Johnsey's loneliness and bewilderment, those of a young man ill-equipped to survive without guidance and vulnerable to the avariciousness and greed that surround him, the book is a fable of how the innocent suffer when the profit motive is given free reign.
This is an unsettling and deeply moving book, beautifully written and expertly plotted, and one that deserves a wide readership.
My thanks to Netgalley for sending it to me.
on 4 January 2014
This is an exceptionally well written book from beginning to end and deserves to be read for its style, beauty and glaring exposure of the bleak characters to be found in the world of men (and women ). As each of twelve chapters describes a month in the life of its chief protagonist 'Johnsey', a painful tale unfolds. It is set in rural Ireland and although written in a very Irish fashion it will appeal to any lover of well written literature because it is an outstanding read. Similarly, amongst the non-Irish who have discovered the gem that is Ireland and its people, this is yet more of the rich culture to devour and appreciate. This is the second Donal Ryan book, the first having won much well deserved acclaim for the author. 'The Thing about December' is a very masterfully crafted tale that flows easily from one chapter to the next building momentum at a perfect pace.
I first borrowed a copy of this book but knew within minutes of reading that I had to own my own copy and cannot wait for the next Donal Ryan novel !
This consummately Irish character novel by 38-year-old Donal Ryan takes place during the property "bubble" which led eventually to Ireland's economic collapse in the early twenty-first century. Johnsey Cunliffe, a shy innocent, is devastated when he is suddenly orphaned and has no life skills to sustain himself. Always insecure, he has always thought of himself as a hopeless "gom," bullied unmercifully, before and after school, by "a dole boy" and some of the other thugs in town. Although he has inherited a large piece of farmland, it has been leased to neighbor Dermot McDermott, and seeing McDermott lording it around on the Cunliffe property only adds to Johnsey's "dead-quiet loneliness" as he copes with the "noisy ignorance" of McDermott and "his fancy farm machinery."
Scenes appear out of chronological order and gradually convey Johnsey's past history; at the same time, each chapter represents the weather and activity of successive months of a calendar year. Inevitably, the reader's emotions and sympathies become totally engaged by Johnsey's story. When he starts working for Packie Collins, who runs a co-op, his day is stultifying: up in the morning, in to work, lunch in the nearby bakery run by the generous and caring Unthanks, back to work, "get a dog's abuse on the way home," try not to cry, home, up to bed, read a book, fall asleep thinking about dad or girls." At times he visits the slatted barn where his cows stay during the winter, and thinks about throwing a rope over the crossbeam and ending it all, but he does not, for fear of disappointing the Unthanks, the only people who are kind to him. When they go away for the summer, he is truly alone.
The turning point in the novel begins with Dermot McDermott's April visit to ask Johnsey to sell him his land, a decision Johnsey cannot bring himself to make because of its family history, but clearly his land has been a major subject of discussion in the community. When Eugene Penrose, Johnsey's nemesis, announces to his bullying companions that Johnsey's land is worth millions, the scene is set for a confrontation which threatens to leave Johnsey a broken man. Eventually, he comes to know two new people who seem to care greatly for him, and the two chapters in which these three lonely individuals come to know each other provide most of the humor in the novel, however dark it may be. Eventually, Johnsey begins to receive visits from townspeople who also want to be his friend.
Inexorably, the reader's sense of foreboding increases, and as the reader observes Johnsey becoming more and more lonely, the question arises of how much he may be responsible for his own victimization. Though the novel is told in the third person, the author brilliantly conveys Johnsey's particular point of view and his vernacular to make him become real for the reader, who would have to have a heart of stone not to respond to the problems of this self-described "gom." When the climax occurs, the parallels between the novel's "resolution" and the events in Ireland when the real estate "bubble" burst are undeniable as this character-based novel becomes an allegorical representation of a particular time and place during which the country forever loses its innocence.
If your debut novel is longlisted for the Booker Prize, it's hard to write a follow up. But within months, Donal Ryan has supplemented his astonishiong debut, The Spinning Heart, with a prequel, The Thing About December. The new novel takes up a storyline mentioned in passing in the first pages of The Spinning Heart - the life of Johnsey Cunliffe, the man whose land was so disastrously developed in The Spinning Heart.
Johnsey is an awkward man. It's not quite clear whether he has a learning disability or whether he is simply eccentric, but he doesn't fit in his rural Tipperary community. But unlike the worlds of John McGahern or Laim O'Flaherty, Johnsey is not looked after by a caring society. Oh no, he is mercilessly bullied from schoolage on through into young adulthood. His playground tormetors hang out drinking at the IRA memorial taunting Johnsey whenever he passes on his way to a make-work job offered by a family friend. Their jibes land - and so too do their kicks and punches.
The Thing About December is narrated as a single, linear story unfolding over twelve consecutive months. In each month, Johnsey is reminded of events past as he faces the purgatory of his present. We see the death of his parents, his loneliness, his guilt at being bullied. And, the thing is, there is nothing Johnsey could possibly do to redeem himself. He tries wearing cool clothes, he tries to make friends, but each attempt is doomed to fail. And then, as he inherits hios parents' farm and that farm starts to attract property speculators, it looks as though Johnsey might have hit the jackpot. But instead, he finds himself made a victim by scammers and chancers, seeking to part him from his fortune. The menace and injustice builds and builds with each passing month. It is a sad, inevitable, violent tale. And it dispels any sense of romance in rural Irish life.
The writing is clear, albeit peppered with Irishisms. The use of a conventional narrative (as distinct from the 21 individual narrators of The Spinning Heart) makes for a deeper, more complext story with more three dimensional characters. But the constant reliance on Johnsey for a Point of View does leave room for ambiguity. How far, we ask, does Johnsey goad his tormentors. Particularly in the final scene, there appears to be a missing step that might infer that Johnsey is not entirely an innocent. There are also questions throughout regarding the benificence or othewise of the Unthanks. This is good, because after the genius of The Spinning Heart there is a risk that more conventional storytelling could feel a little flat. For the most part, Donal Ryan avoids this.
If there is a nagging concern, it is that Ryan's first two books tell different stages of the same story. One hopes Ryan has more material at his disposal and doesn't just keep retelling the same stuff over again - that can get old pretty quickly.
On balance, though, this is a good follow up to The Spinning Heart without, perhaps, matching its inventiveness or its perfect capture of a specific moment of Irish history.
on 20 January 2016
“You can’t make a show of yourself when you’re on your own. You can’t sound stupid opposite nobody. People are better inside your head. When you’re longing for them they’re perfect.”
Bereaved of his parents, a young man with learning difficulties faces life on his own in present-day rural Ireland, doing his best to sidestep the village bullies and the developers pressing him to sell his parents’ land. Donal Ryan is an astonishingly good writer, combining a deep empathy and love for his characters with an enviable power to bring them to life on the page. His first, prizewinning novel (The spinning heart) used multiple points of view. In this prequel the structure is simpler – a single voice and a linear narrative. Two slim volumes, each packed with brilliance. Highly recommended.
on 20 July 2015
This is a well written novel that is very touching. The novel narrates a year in the life of Johnsey, a young man seemingly with learning difficulties, living in an Irish village during the economic boom years. Johnsey has always lived with his parents and is completely at a loss following their deaths. During this period he also has to deal with people from all over, interested in buying his newly inherited land. The writer manages to evoke the village and its inhabitants with great skill. The reader is really immersed in village life. The character of Johnsey comes alive from the page and you really feel for this gentle and deeply lonely man. Some of the most touching and bittersweet passages in the novel describe Johnsey's disastrous attempt to go to a local disco as a teenager, and also the love and protectiveness of his parents towards him.
The book started brilliantly. I was often deeply moved by the writing and thought that I was going to love it, but it deteriorated in the second half. I felt that the actions of the characters became less and less plausible and as a result the character of Johnsey became less real for me.
on 30 October 2015
The 2nd novel by this author is an excellent read, for it's another book with a genuine hearfelt expression.
Storytelling is once again of an outstanding quality which gives this little tale an enormous boost.
This is another hard general life story of someone in rural Ireland, although this may have happened anywhere in the world, and in the western world especially, where this person is trying to make a living for himself but due to external circumstances that same person is falling behind in living standards, and because of his fears and anxiety he's falling back to the brink of life itself.
This heartbreaking tale is about Johnsey Cunliffe, who's a simple man with simple dreams, but a man who finds himself in a world where greed becomes the norm, and so he's trying to hold on to the familiar even as he loses those who have all his life protected him from a harsh world of bullies and land-grabbers.
It is set over the course of one year of Johnsey's life, and in this story you can feel his grief, bewilderment, humour and his self-doubt especially when this man struggles to come to terms in a world that is moving faster than he can.
The book has once again been written in a most hearfelt passion for it brings again vividly to life the hard and unjust times of common people, people like Johnsey Cunliffe f.e.
An absolute fascinating book, and thus for me this is "A True Heartfelt Story"!
on 3 March 2014
I ordered this after reading The Spinning Heart. It is equally well written albeit exclusively from the perspective of a single character, Johnsey Cunliffe, which is on the one hand a limitation (compared to the multiple perspectives of The Spinning Heart), on the other hand it provides a truly unique insight into the life of someone who is truly alone in the world, and without the intellectual wherewithal to make a go of things. Beautiful and frightening, depressing and uplifting at the same time.
on 12 January 2014
Bought this book on the back of all the positive reviews it received and it did not disappoint. A great, entertaining read and one of the best Irish novels I have read in a long time.