Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 30, 2014

The Spinning Heart (2012), by Donal Ryan

I know who to thank for putting me onto this book: it was Tony from Tony’s Book World with his intriguing post titled ‘The Spinning Heart’ by Donal Ryan – The New Dark Ages in Ireland.  As you can see if you read the comments there, the book called out to me because

I remember being in Dublin when the GFC hit and I remarked on it to my husband as we sat in café somewhere in the city, that the people walking past us looked so defeated. It was saddening.

It is those faces that I kept seeing as I read this book.   I do hope that things are better now in Ireland than they were then at the height of the recession.  We had a wonderful time as tourists, but there was no escaping the fact that for many, life was grim.

Tony has titled his review with an allusion to the Dark Ages, because in Ryan’s novel people have reverted not only economically but also socially to a more primitive society.  Pokey Burke, a builder whose projects sustained the local economy, has done a bunk, leaving his aggrieved employees to discover that he hasn’t paid their pension stamps, which would have entitled them to the dole.  The government has failed to protect them from the likes of Pokey, and now like Pontius Pilate washes its hands of them, leaving them destitute.  They react with violence, one of them smashing in the head of the local simpleton, for no reason other than that he is there and Pokey isn’t.  (He’s on the Riviera somewhere, they think.  Perhaps he is.  Probably starting up a new business, as these types often do.)

The anarchism of the society that Ryan depicts made me think of Hobbes, and I found what I was looking for at Wikipedia

But to be outside of a political community is to be in an anarchic condition. Given human nature, the variability of human desires, and need for scarce resources to fulfil those desires, the state of nature, as Hobbes calls this anarchic condition, must be a war of all against all. Even when two men are not fighting, there is no guarantee that the other will not try to kill him for his property or just out of an aggrieved sense of honour, and so they must constantly be on guard against one another. It is even reasonable to pre-emptively attack one’s neighbour.

In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, not culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

In Ryan’s lament for a lost community, life is nasty, brutish and short.  For more than one character, depression leads to thoughts of suicide as the only way out.  But while the mood of the novel is melancholy and the author’s tone is one of resignation and hopelessness, his characters are mean-spirited, malevolent, and spiteful.  The women star as bitches: Hillary, ‘friend’ of Réaltín, catalogues a long list of failings but concludes with a thought-bubble about how she really loves her so-called friend.  Kate the child-care operator is doing nicely thanks to government subsidies (because women are the only ones still working, and only one of the men takes care of his child while his wife goes to work) – but she takes advantage of the recession to reduce wages and conditions.  Bridie, so self-absorbed by her grief for a lost child that she blames everyone long years afterwards, has no time to offer friendship where it’s needed.  The woman who comes closest to nurturing anyone is Lily, the town ‘bike’, but she chose prostitution because she likes it.  She revels in being called ‘wanton’.  In the monologues that form the linked vignettes binding this story together we hear their thoughts and feel a flicker of sympathy for their entrapment, but we are not meant to like these women nor forgive their unkindness.

The men – traditionally providers – are emasculated by the lack of work.  What work there is, is done by women, in Tesco’s, in child-care, in clerical work in a solicitor’s office, keeping their jobs only if they also do the skivvying to keep costs down.  The men drink (0f course), they idle about, they ogle women and they explode into anger when their desperation gets the better of them.  They unite occasionally in defence of the innocent, but it’s a half-hearted effort when Mickey Briars lashes out at Timmy Hanrahan:

Auld Mickey Briars lamped Timmy Hanrahan twice across both sides of his innocent young head before we subdued him.  We locked Mickey into the back of Seanie Shaper’s Hiace until he became more philosophical for himself.  Then we left him out and we all dragged crying, bleeding Timmy up the road to Ciss’s and fed him pints for the evening.  Mickey Briars softened his Jameson with tears and told Timmy he was sorry, he was always fond of him, he was a grand boy so he was, it was only that he thought he was laughing at him,  (p.11)

The only characters who really love are a kind of Holy Family: Bobby Mahon and his wife Triona.  Bobby reminded me of Billy Budd, a Christlike sacrificial lamb rendered mute by circumstance.  It is his voice which introduces the novel, it is hers that ends it.  Triona tells us that some people, like Bobby, take on the troubles of others and others can’t see anything past their own.  (p.151) We do not see what becomes of Bobby whose attentions to Réaltín make him vulnerable to gossip and ultimately to arrest for patricide.  Réaltín’s name means Little Star, and that’s what she is, a star in her own soap opera.  She is a manipulative young woman marooned in a barren half-finished estate for which Bobby obscurely feels responsible,  but she’s a survivor.  All will be well for her and we can forecast her life, surrounded by designer handbags and attentive young male victims lured into her web.  But for the others there is no happy ending: the metal heart that  spins on the gate to Frank Mahon’s cottage is doomed:

There’s a red metal heart in the centre of the low front gate, skewered on a rotating hinge.  It’s flaking now; the red is nearly gone.  It needs to be scraped and sanded and painted and oiled.  It still spins in the wind, though.  I can hear it creak, creak, creak as I walk away.  A flaking, creaking, spinning heart. (p. 9)

What a pity the publishers couldn’t see their way clear to commissioning an artist to depict this clever symbol on the front cover.  By the time this edition was published they would have known it would sell copies around the world, but no, *sigh* all they could come up with was a rusty gate.

My only reservation about  The Spinning Heart is the vignette by the dead narrator. I have yet to come across an instance of this technique that works.  But occasional clumsiness is forgivable in a first novel, especially one of this calibre.  Clearly it didn’t bother judges who longlisted the novella for the Man Booker; awarded it Book of the Year for the Irish Book Awards; and also honoured it with The Guardian First Book Award.

Author: Donal Ryan
Title: The Spinning Heart
Publisher: Doubleday Ireland (Random House), 2014, first published 2012
ISBN: 9781781620083
Source: personal copy purchased from Fishpond.


Fishpond: The Spinning Heart


  1. Lisa, Thank You for the reference. You liked ‘The Spinning Heart’ much more than I did. Ryan certainly depicts how Irish society regressed to an earlier state with the bad times, but I didn’t think he sufficiently bemoaned this fact. He seems to think that the prosperity and new attitudes were all just a scam, and the old traditional ways no matter how mean, violent, and hurtful are the best.


    • Yes, I think you have a point, except for Bridie (who was clearly unsupported when her son drowned in the old days) the impression is that the brief period of economic sunshine wasn’t worth it because of the chaos it leaves in its wake when the bubble bursts. (Oh dear, I’ve mixed a metaphor or two there, eh?)
      Perhaps a bit like Tim Winton’s lament for ‘old Australia’ in Cloudstreet? A great novel, but I never shared his nostalgia.


      • Tim Winton in Cloudstreet was a lot more positive and humorous in spirit. Even though Ryan sees the new society as all just a scam, the old ways for most people were pretty disgusting which he shows quite clearly.


        • Oh yes, I agree, Winton was more positive. Indeed Cloudstreet celebrated old working class Australia, making that world look rather attractive, despite the insularity, sexism and racism that was there.
          Maybe what both authors value is the old certainties. The idea that good or bad, at least you knew where you were?


  2. You might be interested to know what Colm Toibin said about Donal Ryan (an ex writing student of his): that he writes from 9pm to midnight after the kids are in bed, and that The Spinning Heart was rejected 57 times. My blog post on workshop with Toibin here if anyone’s interested:

    I haven’t read The Spinning Heart but your review makes me want to.


    • Goodness, 57 times, and then it wins all those awards. Publishers must wonder about their own judgement sometimes, eh? I took a look at the publishing details of my copy and it says the first edition was a co-publication with Lilliput Press, a leading independent Irish publisher. ( I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they initiated things, here in Oz it’s the independents who lead the way (Text, Giramondo, Transit Lounge et al)
      Mind you, it is not a cheery read, and although the Irish have a reputation for being lugubrious, I expect that most of them like reading popular fiction just like everywhere else in the world, and that’s what sells. In a recession when people don’t buy many books, that would probably influence rejection slips… Perhaps publishers thought that in a recession people would rather not read gloomy stuff about the recession.
      I don’t know, publishing is a complete mystery to me. I can’t even read a book in MS form, I need the shape of the book in my hands to make sense of it.


  3. I read The Spinning Heart last year when it was longlisted for the Booker and liked it a lot. Nine months on, I can recall five or six of the characters quite distinctly (Realtin, Bobby, Triona, Pokey), whereas others have faded somewhat. It’s a terrific debut, though, and Ryan is a writer to watch.
    I love your quote about the flaking, creaking heart, and I guess it’s a metaphor for the characters’ lives in the wake of the financial crisis.


  4. […] actually Donal Ryan’s first novel, published now after the success of The Spinning Heart. (See my review). But it treats the same theme: Ireland’s massive cultural change in the wake of economic […]


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