I saw this slim fella on the bottom shelf of the new release section in Dubray Books on Grafton Street last December.
At the time I was browsing for a book for my wife for Christmas. I remember reading the start of The Spinning Heart and going ‘God, this is great. She’ll love it’. She did. It got lost in the house after that, but emerged recently and I flew through it.
The experts say to grab your prospective readers by your intro, your first line even. Well, it takes Donal Ryan two sentences, but what an opener. He lobs out the bait with the first – then pulls the hook through the roof of your mouth with the second…
“My father still lives back 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.”
It turns out to be the sole chapter from the perspective of the main (or mainish) character, Bobby Mahon, a one-man army of an individual in the eyes of all around him (except his dad, that is). There are 21 chapters, each from the perspective of a different character, but more on that anon.
The reader is dropped into the world of a country village. Ryan gets the whole country thing bang on – in the words, tense and grammar, characterised by the likes of “them boys”, “was took”, the “lad of the Cunliffes”, “quare auld”, “foostering”, “in cahoots”, “lamped”, “hoor”, “goms”, etc. Likewise with the names: “Pokey Burke”, “Mickey Briars”, “Timmy Hanrahan” and “Seanie Sharper”.
The latter three, along with Bobby, worked for the aforementioned Pokey, who Bobby likened to the “rat-faced little men who’ll use you all day and laugh at you all night and never pay in your stamps”.
When Pokey’s building firm goes belly up, all the lads have no social welfare to claim as Pokey never paid their stamps. And so the wider story of the recession unfolds, with each chapter, interlinked in some way, revealing its devastating impact, compounded by personal and family issues.
The bulk of the chapters are beautifully written, laced with humour and pain. Ryan paints vivid and compelling pictures of village life, crippled with stunted emotions and blackened hearts and riddled with begrudgery, bitchiness and the demon drink.
While Bobby Mahon is the thread pulling all the chapters together, the sheer number of narrators (21) did stretch my ability to keep track of who was who and how they were linked. One or two of the chapters also dipped from the very high standard of the rest. But they are the only negative comments in what is a beautiful, engrossing read. No wonder the Booker people loved it.
To think this was rejected 47 times until an intern in Lilliput Press – Sarah Davis Goff, now publisher of Tramp Press – picked it out from the slush pile reminds us aspiring writers how enormously difficult the market is (if we needed reminding) and the imperative to never give up, to keep on going.