Book ReviewsIrish authors

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

Spinning HeartIf it were not for an intern, Donal Ryan’s novel about the heartbreaking consequences of the collapse of Ireland’s economic boom, would never have been published. Nor would it have made the long list for the 2013 Man Booker Award. Nor would I have read one of the best novels I’ve experienced this year.

According to the Independent of Dublin, Ryan’s novel was rejected by publishers more than 40 times. Then an intern working at Lilliput Press in Dublin  found it in the reject pile and raved about it so much to the publisher Anthony Farrell that he was persuaded to read the manuscript himself. The rest is history.

For a debut novel, The Spinning Heart is a remarkable accomplishment. Technically adroit and with pitch perfect characterisation, Ryan builds a powerful portrait of a community fractured by the sudden reversal from boom to boost as the Celtic Tiger years come to an end.

The novel opens as news hits the inhabitants of an unnamed rural town that the  local building firm which had driven much of its prosperity, has gone under,  having over reached itself with one too many new housing developments . The boss Pokey Burke has fled the country, leaving his employees feeling betrayed as well as broke when they discover Pokey had never paid their pension contributions or kept up their employment insurance. No wages, no redundancy payments, no pension payouts.

The repercussions are told through the voices of 21 characters who are directly or indirectly affected by the collapse. Some of them react with quiet desperation like Réaltín, a lonely unmarried mother in a house surrounded by partly built or unsold properties, or Kate, whose creche business suffers when Dell lays off its its wealthy clients and then a child is snatched from her care. Some like Bobby Mahon, the respected foreman of Pokey’s company, funnel their energy into getting any job they can even if the payments are ‘under the counter’. Others like Denis, the boss of an engineering equipment company, end up curled foetus-like on the sofa in shock at his own propensity for violence.

Each monologue adds to our understanding of the other characters and the tensions in this community that build  and erupt into a murderous attack.  There is a sense too that each of the narrators is reaching into themselves to understand who they are and what has gone wrong with their lives.  Even Seanie, a serial womaniser who spends most of his time messing around and joking with his builder mates, has his moments of inner reflection on a world turned upside down.

I never thought I’d ever be depressed , really. It’s quare easy to fall into that hole  when all about you changes and things you thought you always would have turn out to be things  you never really had, and things you were sure you’d have in he future turn out to be on the far side of a big, dark mountain that you have no hope of ever climbing over.

Despair is at the centre of this book, symbolised by the  “flaking, creaking, spinning” metal heart found on the gate leading to the house of Bobby’s detested father. All these characters are in turmoil, wounded by economic forces outside their control, by mental illness or by a fractured relationship with a loved one. Can this community ever be healed is a question that remains unanswered.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

27 thoughts on “The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

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  • I had the impression this included a murder plot, which rather put me off. Is that right or was I confusing it with another novel?

    • The various narrators do talk about a murder and a kidnap giving various clues and perceptions but this isn’t really the point of the novel. Those events are more portrayed as an outcome of the economic crash and the impact it has on a small community

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  • This sounds interesting, sort of like an “Our Town” (Thornton Wilder play) book where everyone gets a chance to tell their story. And hooray for the intern! I love stories like that.

    • I wouldn’t have understood the reference to Our Town until early this year since I’d never heard of the play but then a friend decided he wanted to stage a production and roped my husband into playing one of the roles. Yes there are some similarities Stefanje though in Spinning Headt yiu don’t get the stage manager figure acting as a chorus or narrator.

  • This is a novel that has been on my radar for over a year now and yet somehow I have still to get round to reading it. It sounds to me as though it would make a good book for a reading group discussion. I think I shall have to do something about getting it onto one of my lists as they only way I’m going to get to read it.

    • I hadn’t thought of it but yes it would make for a good book club discussion. I’m sure you can ‘persuade’ your fellow clubbers to give it a go

  • I love your last paragraph and completely agree – loved how he showed despair through the “flaking, creaking, spinning” metal heart found on the gate leading to the house of Bobby’s detested father.”.

    • It was interesting how the book opens with that image and then it’s referred to again in the context of a crime (I won’t spell that part out so I don’t spoil it for others)

  • I do like that kind of publishing story – gives us all hope! I’m intrigued by the sound of this novel and will be interested to see other reviews of it come out. I’ve read polyvocal narratives before and sometimes found them too fragmented, but it seems as if this time, the author has managed to integrate them well?

    • The connection between each new voice and the other characters we’ve already heard of isn’t made obvious initially, its only as their monologue develops do you see the linkage. So fragmented in a sense but it didn’t feel that you were starting a totally different story with each new voice.

  • Although I finally despaired of finding this book in Canada, I ordered a copy from the UK but have yet to read it. I just checked the library and our largest independent bookstore and both finally have copies but it seems to have missed the big box and online retailers all together. A shame because it has garnered so much positive attention. Now to get busy and read it…. Thanks for the review/reminder. You have a great book blog.

  • Donal Ryan should give a huge bonus to that intern 🙂 .

    But seriously, this is a book I badly want to read, and I am so glad you have given it a thumbs-up, I will look for it here.

    • I bet she was so pleased when he got listed for the Booker. What an accomplishment to put on your CV.

  • It sounds bleak! I like the idea of 21 characters telling their stories, though.

    • Well it’s not uplifting but I wouldn’t call it bleak as much as sad.

  • Wow, 21 narrators?! That seems like it could get overwhelming quite easily. I wonder if that fact by itself might have led to some of the rejects. It sounds like the author must have handled it well though.

    • They probably didn’t invest much time in reading it so didn’t appreciate how it developed.


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