The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan (Reading Ireland Month)

For Cathy’s annual Reading Ireland Month celebration and exploration of Irish literature, I chose an author I’d read and loved before: Donal Ryan. The Spinning Heart is a short book (156 pages) but it packs a huge emotional punch. I kept having to put it down because each chapter was so weighty and gave me so much to consider. He is an absolutely beautiful writer, and if you’ve never tried him before I highly recommend him. But be warned, this is not escapist reading.

712fj-pYwALEach chapter of the book is narrated by a different character, and they don’t come back to narrate another chapter later as in so many other books told from multiple perspectives. Because this takes place in a small town everybody knows everybody else, so we hear about characters again and again from different points of view. In this way the action of the story keeps moving forward despite not having continuity in storytellers.

Set just after the booming economy of the “Celtic Tiger” burst, everyone in the town is feeling the after effects. Jobs vanished, men who’s self-esteem depend on bringing home a paycheck are angry and depressed. Some consider moving to Europe or Australia to look for work. But underneath the narrative of the economic crisis is another story about long-buried secrets and emotions. Emotionally abusive or withholding fathers, boyfriends and husbands who can’t find the words to tell their women how they really feel, women who have lost children and lost their way. A surprising act of violence sets everyone on edge and tongues wagging, and then another surprising twist makes everyone doubt whether they know their neighbors at all.

“The air is thick with platitudes around here. We’ll all pull together. We’re a tight-knot community. We’ll all support each other. Oh really? Will we?”

I kept putting down this novel after every chapter initially. The weight of each character’s separate sadness felt too heavy for me to continue on. Like Bobby, the foreman of the local construction outfit, who everyone views as an upstanding man. His father was emotionally vicious and his mother died too young. The fear and shame of no work is eating him alive, and the bond between he and his wife Triona is all he has with which to steady himself.

“I couldn’t stand her smiling through her fear and having to coax me out of my misery like a big, sulky child. I wish to God I could talk to her the way she wants me to, besides forever making her guess what I’m thinking. Why can’t I find the words?”

This is a beautifully written novel about people who are hurting from emotional wounds both long scarred over and fresh. Donal Ryan is a gorgeous writer who portrays even the most appalling, unsympathetic characters with a measure of care and gives them many layers. The Spinning Heart is a moving exploration of the ways families hurt and heal one another, and the ways a terrible event can expose the frayed seams of a small town community. Four Stars, and a very good pick for Reading Ireland Month.

24 thoughts on “The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan (Reading Ireland Month)

  1. I love stories that have narrators who are all connected by location. I’ve not seen this done in a novel so much as in short story collections. What Happened Here by Bonne ZoBell and Cul-de-Sac by Scott Wrobel are both great examples.

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  2. We read this in one of my book groups about six months ago and were all knocked out by it. The language is wonderful and Ryan manages to get so much into so few words. It is also remarkable in how tightly it is structured – a real narrative feat.

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    1. The fact that everyone had something sad they were struggling with did get to me but then I easily absorb the mood of whatever media I’m consuming. It really was a good book, gave me a glimpse into how scary that time must have been when the economic bubble burst. Ryan is really good at portraying people who feel real to me.

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  3. I haven’t encountered another book with such a narrative style. I like the idea of having different POVs but similar experiences and setting. This sounds like quite a heartbreaking read but a good one. Great review!

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  4. Oohh this sounds very good. I love short novels, but I find they can pack the most punch too, despite being so short. I don’t read alot of Irish writers so I’m glad to find another that’s worth the read!

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  5. Would you be surprised if I said I never heard of this book but now I want to read it ASAP? Hearing the story from different narrators reminds me of course of my favorite book, so that intrigued me right away. But the heaviness of what everyone has experienced, well, I need to find out.

    But what an impact each narrative had to have causing you to break between each one.

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  6. Yes, I think it was Naomi who first put me onto this one and now, of course, I only want to read it even more. Sheesh. So many good – and sad – stories to read! (But I love it when even unsympathetic characters ring true for us as readers.)

    Liked by 1 person

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