If 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.