The Spinning Heart

Donal Ryan’s remarkable first novel, The Spinning Heart, is an ancient story of greed, betrayal, and murder set in boom-and-bust modern Ireland and told by twenty-one characters whose language fairly sets the page alight. As you read each short monologue, you hear the voices of the Irish midlands. Expletive-rich, often hilarious, and perhaps outlandish to unaccustomed ears (the U.S. edition could use a glossary), the jittery speech so accurately reproduced by Ryan instantly transports us to a County Limerick village shaken by economic collapse.

The first voice, that of Bobby Mahon, is mild if menacing. “My father lives back the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in. I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down…. After I have him buried I’ll burn the cottage down and piss on the embers and I’ll sell the two acres for as much as I can get.” Bobby hates his father, loves his dead mother, and wants the land. This could be Sophocles, then, or J. M. Synge (Bobby’s name is surely a nod to Synge’s hero, Christy Mahon, in The Playboy of the Western World), but Bobby is no tragic hero and these villagers are far from quaint. “They do be below in the shops, standing in miserable little circles, comparing hardships,” Rory, an unemployed laborer, sneers, “…the same pricks I’ll be looking for a job off if things pick up or London doesn’t work out….” But things aren’t picking up. “Ghost” housing developments disfigure the land. It’s emigration or the dole, and now Bobby Mahon and his building crew realize that their slimy boss, Pokey Burke, has “shafted” them out of their pension dues and fled to Dubai, narrowly escaping a beating. Simpleminded young Tim gets in the way of the shovel: “To this day there’s a quare auld draw on one of his eyeballs, as if it’s not able to keep time with its comrade.”

Darker attacks haunt the memories of many characters; old Lily, for example, the once “wanton” girl whose final pregnancy was almost ended by the enraged father’s blows, or Jason, who reports, “My head is all over the place since I was small on account of I was fiddled with by a fat nonce down the road from our old house inside in town.” It is Jason’s dogs that sense fresh violence. “The dogs smelt death,” he recalls, “We walked on down past Bobby Mahon’s auld lad’s cottage and he was dead inside in it and we never knew. I seen him just after he done it.” But who does Jason see? Bobby is caught bloody-handed and arrested, but the mystery runs deeper, into wounds inflicted by a different father on another son.

This bleak territory of male brutality has been mapped by generations of Irish writers from John McGahern and Patrick McCabe, for example, to Claire Keegan and Sebastian Barry, among others. Yet The Spinning Heart, though firmly rooted in that ground, is nonetheless startlingly fresh. And funny, obscenely funny in ways that can only be hinted at here. “I won’t think about Lorna again after I start tapping some fine blondie wan below in Australia,” Brian, about to emigrate, reflects while Hillary, working for a crooked attorney, fumes about her flirtatious best friend: “She nearly raped my father at my granny’s funeral. His mother, like.” Within a few pages, often in a single sentence, Ryan can convey the weight of an old life, heavy with memories, or the nervy irreverence of the young, eager to fly. “I served my time in the sixties as a block-layer beyond in Liverpool,” Pokey Burke’s father declares, “in a firm belonging to a great big fat fella from south Tipp.… I asked him where would I stay and he laughed at me, a big, fat, wet laugh.”

There may be a few characters too many in Ryan’s cast — the creepy Mummy’s boy, for example, with his cyber-freak sidekick — and the novel’s subplot involving a child abduction seems flimsy and extraneous. But the strongest voices here not only conjure up, with astonishing immediacy, a small place and a particular time, they also reveal fragments of the truth behind the murder of old Mahon and the likely fate of his son, heightening the suspense with a casual remark. “That was a time when killing was for good, for God and country,” the village policeman muses of the 1920s. “That time is long gone. But aren’t we still the same people?”