It might just be a skewed thought in my head, but the traditionally the Booker Prize is littered with “historical fiction”. So it was with surprise that I made my way through “The Spinning Heart”, Donal Ryan’s debut novel which is set in Ireland not long after the recent economic crisis. A contemporary novel? Say what?
In this short novel we have twenty one voices (all written in the first person) explaining the impact of the economic crisis on their lives. We have a depressive, a Pixies fan who can’t go out on a date as he has no money, a schizophrenic (he’s actually two voices) one of whom wants to be a solipsist, a face tattooed unemployable larrikin, an apprentice who had his career cut short, a crèche manager, a child who observes her family breaking apart and most importantly Bobby the foreman on the working estate that went under who is the common thread throughout.
Our troubles begin in chapter one (Bobby) where Pokey Burke goes broke after growing too big for his own good and investing in building an island in the Arab States. He leaves all his workers with no pensions, no pay and a whole lot of woe:
Triona said don’t mind them love, don’t think about them, the Burkes were always users and crooks dressed up like the salt of the earth. Everyone’s seen their real faces now. The whole village knows what they’ve done. You’re a worker and everyone knows it. People look up to you. They’ll be fighting each other to take you on once things pick up. Everyone around here knows you’re the only one can keep the reins on them madmen. Who else could knock a day’s work out of fat Rory Slattery? And stop Seanie Shaper from trying to get off with himself? I laughed then, through my invisible tears. I couldn’t stand myself. I couldn’t stand her smiling through her fear and having to coax me out of my misery like a big, sulky child. I wish to God I could talk to her the way she wants me to, besides forever making her guess what I’m thinking. Why can’t I find the words?
Right so, right so, right so. Imagine being such a coward and not even knowing it. Imagine being so suddenly useless.
Even though we hear the effects of the unemployment, the hopelessness, a future that is nothing but a void, the plans to go to London to help with the Olympics building or the fleeing to Australia, the underlying cry for help, that is Ireland on its knees, is a pitiful whimper. We also have the town rumour mill, the illegitimate children, the romances and hopes of the villagers, the alcoholism, and the raw hatred that is simmering below the surface.
So I’m going to Australia in the context of a severe recession, and therefore I am not a yahoo or a waster, but a tragic figure, a modern incarnation of the poor tenant farmer, laid low by famine, cast from his smallholding by the Gombeen Man, forced to choose between the coffin ship and the grave. Matty Cummins and the boys were blackguards; I am a victim. They all left good jobs to go and act the jackass below in Australia; I haven’t worked since I finished my apprenticeship. He has to go to the far side of the planet to get work, image, the mother does be saying to her ICA crowd. How is it at all we left them run the country to rack and ruin? How’s it we swallowed all them lies? You can be certain sure there’s no sons of bankers or developers or government ministers has to go off over there to get work. After all the trouble we had to get him though his exams and all.
Our story is told through the many voices, each with a unique style and plea, the writing sometimes riddled with slang, other times lamenting or cursing their poor luck. Through the many voices, single mothers, illegal immigrant workers, people who live on the unfinished estate and more a clear picture of the role Bobby plays in keeping them all looking forward becomes clearer as each page is turned. But as we learn in the opening paragraph Bobby is harbouring a deep seeded hatred of his own father:
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. 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 he is 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.
This is a wonderful novel, exploring the issues of our times but really simply delving into the standard themes of human angst, the eternal existentialist questions. With minimal conversations, a novel constructed more through observation and inner thoughts, Donal Ryan has painted a vivid picture of Ireland in decay, a generation of ordinary people struggling to make sense of their existence. Another bleak tale (there are so many in recent years) that is a deserved inclusion on the long list. It is hard to judge whether a shortlist spot is in the offing being the first I’ve read from this year, but I can categorically state that it is better than a few that have made the shortlists in the three years. A debut novel that I can thoroughly recommend.