The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

Set in rural Ireland after the housing bubble burst, The Spinning Heart takes individual voices and blends them into a story of loss and despondency. The stories spin around the heart in Bobby Mahon’s childhood home, around living hearts that struggle to push through hardened arteries or nervous dispositions, around the family, the hearth that is the true heart of generations grown on father’s anger, God’s anger, or on motherly cowardice or resentment. There isn’t a tale that escapes some kind of family cruelty, every person trying their best to make it one day more.

The craft the novel displays is artful and well-conceived, though I would argue at times a little sentimental. Bobby Mahon is the local hero against whom other men measure themselves and Donal Ryan allows the law of tragedy that rips through lives with an unfounded chaos, driving men mad, to tear up this community with Bobby as their scapegoat. Someone has to pay for the scams of the boom years. It can’t be the man who made off with everyone’s money because he is long gone. The desire to kill one’s father becomes enough to condemn Bobby, and over it all hangs the question of what now. Amidst the chaos what really matters?

The Spinning Heart is a beautiful, powerful novel and deserving winner of the Guardian First Novel Award last year, but it wasn’t quite for me. I’m not sure if it was Bobby’s father’s dead voice that lost me, or simply my corresponding despondency in the face of the well-described listlessness of recession. I read the novel almost as if it were a dream that is all too easy to wake from. That may say more about me than the novel. There can be no doubt this is a novel worth reading, it’s just simply not my favourite so far this year.

Next week I’ll be reading Stoner by John Williams, followed by The Lost Horizon by James Hilton and The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing. Please do comment and send in suggestions for future reading.

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