The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

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.

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

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.

Some other Irish fiction reviewed on this site: Long Time, No See by Dermot Healy and Birchwood by John Banville.

Have you read this? Let me know your thoughts! How about any others of this year’s Booker dozen?

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There are 3 comments

  1. Agreed that is a terrific opening paragraph. The slightly unconventional grammar that the narrator speaks in gives is a nice touch. I suppose that this was be one technique that the writer uses to differentiate all the narrators.

    1. You’re right, Brian, it is unconventional: “to see is he dead”. But it’s very true to colloquial English in Ireland, at least in my limited experience. It made the voices of the characters very real to me – it felt more as if I was listening to them speaking in my head, rather than reading words on a page. If that even makes sense…!

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