Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Poetic and Moving Portrait of A Village

Title: The Spinning Heart
Author: Donal Ryan
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Steerforth
Publication Date: February 25, 2014 (originally pub. in U.K. in 2012)
Hardcover 160 pages

How I Read This Book: e-ARC from the publisher via Netgalley

Synopsis per Goodreads:
In the aftermath of Ireland's financial collapse, dangerous tensions surface in an Irish town. As violence flares, the characters face a battle between public persona and inner desires. Through a chorus of unique voices, each struggling to tell their own kind of truth, a single authentic tale unfolds. 
The Spinning Heart speaks for contemporary Ireland like no other novel. Wry, vulnerable, all-too human, it captures the language and spirit of rural Ireland and with uncanny perception articulates the words and thoughts of a generation. Technically daring and evocative of Patrick McCabe and J.M. Synge, this novel of small-town life is witty, dark and sweetly poignant.
My Review:

Donal Ryan's exploration of village life after the collapse of the Irish economy is full of beautiful writing and interesting characters. It's easy to see why this debut made the Booker Prize longlist last summer as well as being named the Book of the Year by the Irish Book Awards. Since it is unlikely that many people in either the U.K. or the United States would have discovered this talented writer without these honor this is an instance where the literary vanguard has done readers a great service.

The Spinning Heart has gotten a fair bit of attention for portraying the devastation unleashed when Ireland's economy folded, but it does so not with great sweeping sociological pronouncements, but by illuminating the haunting personal tragedies that arise from long term resentments and dysfunction compounded by economic dislocation.

Ryan unfolds and reveals his tale through a series of internal monologues by inhabitants of an unnamed village whose lives are disrupted when Pokey Burke, a property developer, flees when his dubious business dealings result in bankruptcy. His disappearance leaves the men who worked for him through the boom years unemployed and at a loss for alternatives. Making matters worse, Pokey was never the most upstanding of business people and he never paid the necessary employment taxes, leaving his former employees without a safety net.

Sudden idleness ripples through the lives of the men and their families as everyone begins to question not just what to do, but how they came to live as they are. Who am I? And, what does my life mean? These questions roar like flood waters around and throughout this book. The chorus Ryan creates with his multiple narrators provides a multi-layered portrait of the multitude as well as different perspectives on key figures in a violent drama that unfolds over the course of several months. Each narrative voice is unique and brilliantly imbues life into characters across classes, ages and nationalities. Even the dead have a voice here. Ryan gives each man, woman and child a tale of their own that supplements and deepens our compassion for all the victims of the economic implosion.

As beautiful, engaging, and brief, as this novel is, at times it feels as if there are too many voices, too many stories. While it is easy to keep track of the central actors as they each have a chance to tell a part of the tale, Ryan may have gone overboard in his bid for all encompassing social commentary. For example, I felt that there was no need given the structure of the novel to include narration from a nomadic Russian laborer. Yes, many immigrated to Ireland as workers while the Celtic Tiger was on a rampage, and while his tale was affecting, it was structurally extraneous. Perhaps it was this reliance on creating a collective folk tale instead of a more controlled narrative structure that prevented it from being included on the Booker Shortlist?

Structural concerns aside, this is an entertaining, emotionally affecting book as well as an introduction to a new and impressive talent. We all should hope to write anything that approaches the level of truth and beauty Donal Ryan makes look so easy. The good news is that his second novel will be published in the US soon and I definitely plan on reading it as soon as I can.

Bottom Line:

A book for lovers of literary fiction where language is character and heartbreak goes hand-in-hand with beauty. The Spinning Heart will engage and haunt you for far longer than it will take to read.

Note: I received a galley of this book from the publisher via Net Galley, but rest assured, this review reflects my own opinions and all my own typos.

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