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.

Reading Ireland Month: All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

I engineered these passions, these trials, to convince myself I was living a life.  Even misery was better than boredom.  

When we meet Melody Shee she is in her thirties, living in Limerick, Ireland, and twelve weeks pregnant.  The father is not her husband but the seventeen year-old Traveller boy whom she tutors in reading.  Her husband has left her, and she’s contemplating suicide.  We learn that she carries the blame for a childhood friend’s death inside her, and has for years.  We learn that she and her husband have suffered through two miscarriages, and he decided to get a vasectomy to spare them both any more pain.  We learn that her father and her mother didn’t really have a happy marriage, but that her father is the one person who loves and supports her perfectly.  He’s the one person whom she doesn’t want to disappoint, but she can’t quite ever feel worthy of his love.29752909

True confession time:  I almost abandoned All We Shall Know somewhere between pages 50 and 77.  Frankly, three things kept me going.  1.  It was a gift from a blogger friend, 2. it was short (186 pages,) and 3. I realized that, while it began bleakly, it was most certainly NOT dull.

I have the marvelous blogger Fiction Fan to thank for helping me to realize the last bit, in a comment exchange on my previous post.  She said she doesn’t really abandon books for being too sad, but rather for being dull.  It made me reconsider All We Shall Know in a totally knew light.  I realized that while I was saddened by the events in the novel, I was also invested.  I wanted to know what was going to happen to Melody Shee and her baby.  I alternately sympathized with and cringed at Melody’s passions and anger, but I couldn’t stop reading about her.

This is a lyrical, beautifully written book, full of sadness, full of intense emotions, and full of life.  There is a compelling, propulsive quality to the writing, and Ryan is masterful at making the reader care about a heroine that is troubled, to say the least.  Some may find her unlikable. I did myself at times.  But she is a fully realized character, someone who has suffered, made profound mistakes, and carries their weight with her always.  I also marveled at Ryan’s skill in depicting pregnancy.  It made me recall my own experience, the bodily sensations that change and surprise, and even made me have a dream about being pregnant.  The chapters begin at Week Twelve and end at Week Forty, so as the novel progresses the impending birth comes closer and closer.

Melody’s life takes a turn after meeting another Traveller, a young woman named Mary Crothery, a distant relative of the baby’s father.  She also turns to Melody for help learning how to read, and they strike up an unusual and fascinating friendship.  I found that her introduction into the narrative was a real turning point for me in that her character lightened the story up considerably, and softened Melody’s abrasiveness.  Her story line is fraught with peril as well, as she’s left her husband from another Traveler clan, and his family doesn’t like it one bit.  Yet even Melody’s sweet father is enchanted by her.

And the sky and the earth and the cut grass and the chirruping of birds and the low drone of insects and the slant light across my father’s happy face and the gleam of wonder in Mary Crothery’s eyes and the smell of the morning air and the weight of life inside me all seemed even, and easy, and messless, and perfect, and right, and every deficit seemed closed in that moment.

I have a Goodreads shelf labelled “Sad But Worth It” and this resides firmly on that shelf.  It’s a beautiful, raw book about impossible messy relationships and the hope for redemption.  I know I won’t soon forget fierce, flawed Melody, and I will definitely read Ryan again.

Have you ever had this kind of reading experience before, when a book you almost abandoned turned around for you?  Do you have a recommendation for an Irish writer or novel you love? Let me know in the comments.

reading-ireland-month_2017Cathy at 746 Books once again hosts Reading Ireland Month, a month dedicated to exploring all that’s good in Irish books and culture.  Check out all the fun here.

Reading Ireland Month: House of Splendid Isolation by Edna O’Brien

(This post is part of Reading Ireland Month, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging.   )

picmonkey-collageJosie O’Meara is old and lonely in her crumbling big manor house in the Irish countryside.  She’s come home from the hospital to die in her own home.  She is haunted by her past, her abusive husband and a tragic love affair with an unavailable man.  She is utterly alone in the world, a nurse occasionally coming to check on her and a grocery delivery coming once a week.  The last thing she expected is to be caught up in the manhunt for a dangerous escaped IRA soldier, McGreevy, nicknamed The Beast.  Informed of the owner’s invalid status, once he escapes from jail he travels south and uses her house for cover in an operation to kill a vacationing English lord.  The last thing Josie expects is to feel something for a man described who is a killer.

House of Splendid Isolation is a complicated novel, a mix of suspense, social commentary, and exploration of the choices one makes and has to live with.  I don’t pretend to know very much about Ireland’s Troubles, just the bare bones, but O’Brien makes McGreevy just sympathetic enough to have probably gotten some flack for her portrayal.  My sympathies were engaged by many characters in this short novel – Josie, McGreevy, a young policeman who kills a man for the first time (one of McGreevy’s comrades,) a young woman who sympathizes with the IRA and seems to be waiting for her life to really begin.  They are all caught in their roles, it seems, playing parts almost predestined for them.  The action of the story shifts back and forth from the present to Josie’s sad past.  McGreevy is not the only one who may have something to atone for.373131

Reading House of Splendid Isolation, I bemoaned the fact that I had never read anything by Edna O’Brien before.  I was thoroughly engrossed in the compelling story and propulsive writing style.  O’Brien has crafted a moving story with some thrilling scenes – I was reading the scene where McGreevy breaks into Josie’s house while my husband was working at night, and my son was asleep, and I was convinced I heard a noise outside. (I was totally creeped out!)  I appreciated the way O’Brien makes the reader work a bit – we’re not always sure who is talking or thinking when a scene shifts perspective.  She keeps us on our toes.  It is a sad novel, but the fast pace and the sensitive characterization make it worthwhile.  This may have been my first O’Brien novel, but it will not be my last.