Irish writer Donal Ryan’s first book The Spinning Heart is less a novel than a chorus. A chorus of 21 voices telling, stating, deploring, accusing and confessing things that are on their mind, things they want to commit or have committed, things they should have done or could have done. While each of them gives us a slice of individual life, in his or her unique voice, using their idiom or vernacular, they are linked because of the recession that has hit them hard. Most of the professional life in this small rural community was tied to the building firm of Pokey Burke who fled the country, leaving his former employees without pension or income. He’s also responsible for a ghost estate, in which one of the narrators, Réaltín, her little boy, and one elderly woman live. The other houses haven’t been finished and Réaltín’s house has a lot of shortcomings too.
The book opens with Bobby’s voice and closes with Triona, Bobby’s wife. In between are the 19 others. Former workers of Pokey, his father and many more. What struck me the most was that every chapter really sounded as if a person was talking to us. The voices are each so intimate and distinctive. Some focus on the present moment and the recession, some go way back. What we read paints an astounding portrait of Irish society, the things that have been the same for decades, like the weight of the Catholic Church, and those that have drastically changed, like the economy. Some voices are shocking, some are heartbreaking, some belong to very young children, some to old people, most to those who have been the most affected by the recession- people between 18 and 60+.
While all these lives have been marked by Pokey and his real estate fraud, there are also two thin plot lines which link all the people: the abduction of Réaltín’s boy and the murder of Bobby’s father. With these to plots the book transcends the economy theme and encompasses more universal topics like family and relationships.
The Spinning Heart is an amazing piece of writing and I’m not surprised Donal Ryan won the guardian First Book Award. Creating 21 distinctive voices is an achievement but to tell 21 touching life stories and to capture a whole country even more so.