The Spinning Heart – Donal Ryan
Another Booker longlisted novel, The Spinning Heart has been praised for it’s portrayal of “modern”, post-Celtic tiger Ireland. The book is rather innovative , in that each chapter is narrated by a different character. Each new chapter builds upon those it follows to give us not only a strong narrative, but also to paint a compelling picture of a small community.
Without wanting to reveal too much, the catalyst for the plot is the closure of a major construction firm after a failed venture into property speculation and financial mismanagement by the owner, which then has a knock-on effect throughout the entire community. The way that the story unfolds, with almost every major event in each character’s life having happened on account of this closure topping like dominos is particularly enjoyable.
In a novel with so many points of view, good characterisation is essential, and I think Ryan has pulled it off. They all have their own unique voices, and while I’m not familiar enough with Ireland to know if the colloquialisms and dialect are accurate, it certainly felt authentic enough to me.
As I believe I’ve said before, I’m a fan of the unreliable narrator, and The Spinning Heart has it in spades. Gossip and hearsay are a fundamental part of the book, as you’d expect with a book set in a small town, and so we’re never really sure what’s true and what isn’t. Well, that’s not quite true. The nature of each chapter means that generally speaking we can take them at their word for what they are doing, and when future chapters reference back to events that happen here, we can either verify or dispute what other characters think. The problem is that each chapter advances the story, and it’s when characters report something new that’s happened that we begin to doubt what we know.
The other downside to the multiple narrators format is that a lot of things go unanswered. The main conflicts are sort of semi-resolved by the closing chapter, but we don’t get any closure for one, and the other isn’t even close to explained, so we end up at a loss as to why it happened at all. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing from an authorial point of view, but I did find myself wanting a bit more resolution.
One aspect of society that I did think was missing, considering the book does a good job of covering a range of social ranks and ideals, was the idea of the church, which one would imagine would play a fairly major role in a small Irish community. We did hear from one old woman who had forsaken God and the Catholic Church after her son was killed in an accident years before, but apart from that there is no other mention. Now it’s possible that my expectation that there should be a larger role for it is just me falling back on the out of date stereotypes of those unfamiliar with modern Ireland, and that the woman is intended to represent the decline of Ireland’s spirituality, but I still felt it was odd.
How do I rate The Spinning Heart’s chances at Booker glory? I think it deserves to make the short-list, though perhaps not to win. It’s a creative and original story, but I don’t think it’s quite substantial enough to actually outrank some of the other nominees.
(Note: I wrote and scheduled this review before the short-list was revealed, and discovered that The Spinning Heart didn’t make the cut)