The Spinning Heart, a review

The remnants of the recession and global banking crisis’ implications on collective and individual psychology is undoubtedly a fervent source of intrigue. Narratives compete. The novelist for one, is both an observer and a participant in its society, but then there will be those who exploit the narrative in a different way, and use it as an ideology.

Donal portrays a sympathetic and original account, in his début of the ramifications of a global banking crisis and the ‘Celtic Tiger’ of Ireland. This was the the period of time when the economy had rapid growth until 2008, then severely reversing and plunging Ireland into hard times.

Already tipped for big things, having being inducted into the Waterstones Eleven for 2013, Donal Ryan presents 21 different characters, in little over 150 pages, in a series of monologues. It becomes clear after the first two or three characters stories that these are not short stories. They’re not even the eponymous named ‘overlapping’ short stories, as each character story slowly constructs their narrative, and in doing so, as they build, voices of a community. The central plot slowly burns away in the background as Ryan’s characters take centre stage with their unique voices.

The first character, Bobby Mahon, introduces the idea that the building company of the housing estate where the novel is set, are in a way responsible for the issues surrounding them. The contractors ran out of money and credit. The estate was abandoned. Quite disorientingly at first, he mentions other builders and employee’s of the company, who appear at different points in the novel (and sometimes don’t appear at all). One such character who constantly referred to is Pokey Burke who fled with all the remaining money of the company when things started to go awry. He elusive, the blame-ridden other, but likely another machination of this big system.

Despite Bobby coming across as a street savvy, local hero thought, he and the other builders present themselves as being hideously naïve in the good times “I should have known something was up the day last year Mickey Briars came in asking about his pension” he says.  The illegitimacy of Pokey’s company then becomes prevalent:  “PRSI. PAYE. Income levy, pension. She held it in front of her with her nose wrinkled up like I was after wiping my armpit with it. Well? I said. Well What? Whats the story? There’s no story sir . I wasn’t on the computer as an employee of Pokey Burke or anyone else”.
It is this kind of local level that Ryan makes his grand statement about the economic downturn. But doesn’t downturn seem such a limp, understated term in this sense and doesn’t Celtic Tiger, just seem ridiculous? But this is in part what The Spinning Heart is about – finding the language to describe global things incredibly personal. It’s like the negligence, and ignorance of Pokey Burke.

There is the overriding sense people being trapped in this, and for some, this feeling is more explicit and admitting than for others. Ryan, displaying his versatility at manipulating the language of other characters, sees Vasya, a Russian immigrant who presumably came to Ireland for opportunity, describe the horizon as ‘close and small’. In this way Ryan shows language as a key determiner of characterisation down to Vasya speaking sentences of ‘two words or three’. But this isn’t just linguistic. The physical boundaries are also emphasised by Bridie, who reminisces of her child drowning in the sea, ‘the greedy Atlantic swallowed him’. This is Ireland – an island after all – and the geography is conspiring against them as well.  Bridie introduces a feeling of segregation and abandonment who’s horizon is also limited “I always swore i’d never again set foot in County Clare. I don’t even like to look across at east Clare from the low shore at Castlelough”. The ultimate abandonment is of course the housing project.

Like Bobby Mahon reappears and seems to float through the lives of the other characters, his plot line central to the others, so do the metaphors and themes he introduces. The title of the novel is taken from the gate to his father’s cottage; “Red metal heart in the centre of the low front gate, skewered on a rotating hinge. Its flaking now; the red is nearly gone. It needs to be scraped and sanded and painted and oiled. It still spins in the wind, though. I can hear it creak, creak as I walk away. A flaking, creaking, spinning”. This piece of the gate and entrance to the house, is as if the heart is the thing that is causing the problems. The characters seem to be fixated with the heart, its problems as if puzzled by its physical anatomy, unable to understand as if it should be capable of more. Timmy for instance, recognises something wrong with somebody’s heart, and in his childlike voice claims ‘it just stopped beating’ .Or what about Trevor who claims that one day his heart ‘will just stop dead’. In each case that the heart occurs it seems to be faulty.

If the source of love is then the family then Ryan makes us rethink this. From the moment Bobby goes round to his Dad’s everyday wishing he was dead (‘and everyday he let me down;), absent and imperfect fathers are everywhere. The family is never conventional. Bridie has different children to different fathers, or Trevor who has visions of kidnapping a child rather than visions of producing a family himself. Seanie’s womanising may suggest how the failing of the family is the failing of the community. Maybe it is just a problem with men – with the world run by men, they’re the only ones who seem to be able to change circumstances in The Spinning Heart, and usually do a poor job of it.

The Spinning Heart is published by Doubleday Ireland/Transworld and is out 27 June 2013 this year. Thank you to them for providing a review copy.