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.
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.
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.
on 26 January 2014
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.
on 18 September 2015
This marvellous small novel by Donal Ryan is in my view an achievement of astounding calibre.
The storytelling is absolutely wonderful and it gives this book a certain top-notch quality.
The book describes the feelings of people, 21 in all, in very fine details and the author has the ability to put his characters in a real humanly fashion.
It tells us a tale of a particular historic event, the first big financial crisis of the 21st Century, with great conviction about the hearts and minds of a group of people in rural Ireland where this financial crisis ruled and influenced the lives of these people enormously.
This piece of Irish history also pictures the surroundings of the people in this part of rural Ireland in a real-like way during the time of recession and disturbing unsettling circumstances, and thus also how people try to cope with it all.
A book which has been written with a heartfelt passion, for it brings to life the hard and unjust times that each of us had to endure, the common people in particular, in trying to survive this crisis.
This is a most wonderful little novel with a strong character and thus certainly one that I want to call as "A Very Promising Debut"!
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.
This is a very unusual book and the reader has to get used to the unfamiliar language and the very Irish modes of expression. The book is structured into short autobiographical chapters and following the story is quite hard work. You have to concentrate hard to piece together the individual autobiographies to get the hang of the relations between the characters. But the writing itself is brilliant: the autobiographies are bleak but often very funny; grim yet poignant, and dark and sinister yet surprisingly tender.
on 13 July 2014
I thought I would love this book, what with it being Irish and all. If I'm honest, that is the only reason that I chose to read it (along with the fact that it was award winning). The first paragraph is brilliant, typical Ireland and you can hear the Irish lilt in your head as you read it. It made me laugh. However, the remainder of the book left me feeling lost and bewildered.
The Spinning Heart has 21 chapters, each told by a different person, and in that respect, reminds me somewhat of The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas; a book that I could not engage with in any way and stopped reading after a few chapters. If I'm honest, I wouldn't have got much further than chapter three with this book, had it not been for my mum. She had read the book previously and wanted me to finish it in order to be able to tell her whether it was just her that felt like she had no clue who anybody was or what had just happened.
So I persevered....
Having just finished the book, I took to Amazon to read the other reviews, and I see that overall The Spinning Heart gets five star reviews. I've skimmed down them, and I feel like these people have read a different book to me.
The Spinning Heart is dubbed as a tale of rural Ireland, following Ireland's crash into recession. The book indeed touches on that, but for me, doesn't really feel like it is about that. In fact, it doesn't really feel like it is about anything in particular.
You do appreciate how the same story differs when told from another persons perspective, but the book, for me, didn't delve deeply into any aspect of the plot and as I have said left me feeling lost and bewildered. There are questions left unanswered, and I still do not know what relevance certain aspects and characters had to the overall story, other than an understanding of the 'difficult times'.
I am sorry to say that I did not find the book either dramatic or engaging. I spent most of the time trying to work out who on earth this next character was and how they were linked to the story, and perhaps this contributed to my feeling that nothing really happened.
I certainly wouldn't recommend to someone who is not used to the Irish language (which I myself am). In addition, you have to concentrate hard to piece the characters together and search deep for the thread that links them all, and even then I'm not sure what exactly it is you gain from reading the story. Although it is only a short book, at around 160 pages, it isn't a "quick and easy read".
That all said, it appears that many people have read this book and felt that it was the work of a genius. Maybe I am missing something?
on 12 July 2016
It might be well written but it has to be the most depressing book I have picked up for years. I know the downturn in Ireland was a bad time but most people just got through it. The characters are impossible to like and the negativity is overwhelming, sad to say I could not finish the book.
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.