Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 9, 2018

The Thing About December (2014), by Donal Ryan

Loneliness covers the earth like a blanket. It flows in the stream down through the Callows to the lake. It’s in the muck in the yard and the briars in the haggard and the empty outbuildings are bursting with it. It runs down the walls inside of the house like tears and grows on the walls outside like a poisonous choking weed. It’s in the sky and the stones and the clouds and the grass. The air is thick with it: you breathe it into your lungs and you feel like it might suffocate you. It runs into hollow places like rainwater. It settles on the grass and on trees and takes their shapes and all the earth is wet with it. It has a smell, like the inside of a saucepan: scraped metal, cold and sharp. When it hits you, it feels like a rap of a hurl across your knuckles on a frosty winter’s morning in PE: sharp, shocking pain, but inside you, so it can’t be seen and no one says sorry for causing it nor asks are you okay, and no kind teacher wants to look at it and tut-tut and tell you you’ll be grand, good lad.

But you know if another man stood where you’re standing and looked at the same things he wouldn’t see it or feel it. (p.44)

Johnsey Cunliffe has lived in his rural Irish village all his life.  But his grief-stricken mother died not long after his father succumbed to cancer, and now Johnsey – naïve, inexperienced and easily rattled by official documents or unfamiliar situations – is all on his own.  The novel traces a year of his life, month by month, culminating in a devastating conclusion that seems inevitable from the outset…

Each chapter begins with Johnsey’s memories of the cycle of farm life, often described with humour that suggests that Johnsey is not as simple as he seems:

January was lonely and slow and drawn out as a rule, no matter what Mother said about it.  The first day of February is the first day of spring, Daddy used to say, as if you could dictate to a season when it was to start.  More would contend spring began in March, but the way Daddy used to say it, looking up at the sky as if to see if God was listening, to remind him to send the new season, his words would nearly make the world warm up. (p.29)

But Johnsey has been over-protected by his parents and now his employer exploits his hard work and determination, by taking advantage of a new law exempting lads without their full faculties from the minimum wage:

Johnsey wasn’t exactly sure what faculties were but he knew there were no bits missing off him on the outside, so it must be something inside him that Packie thinks is not right and stops him from getting the minimum wage.  (p.32)

As an only child inheriting land and other assets passed down through generations, Johnsey doesn’t depend on this work for an income, but work has been part of his routine and it offers human contact:

The day dragged on and on like Tuesdays often do – it’s a nowhere day, Daddy used to say – it’s not the start of the week or in the middle or the end, it’s just the long day before the hump.  The hump is Wednesday.  Wednesday always used to make Johnsey think of a little bridge that you have to run over to get from one end of the week to the next.  Johnsey’s weekdays were nearly all the same: up in the morning, in to work, lunch in the bakery, back to work, finish work, get dog’s abuse on the way home from work, try not to cry, home, eat the dinner, look at television with silent Mother, up to bed, read his book, fall asleep thinking about Daddy, or girls, or hearing back his own thick words, and off we go again, dead tired and full of emptiness. (p.33)

That ‘dog’s abuse’ is the regular bullying he’s had from Eugene Penrose and his gang ever since they left school. If February with his mother’s death heralds Johnsey’s annus horribilis, it is April which is the cruellest month because the local thugs led by Eugene Penrose and a vicious ‘townie’ take advantage of the fact that there is no one to look out for Johnsey any more, and they beat him so badly that he ends up in hospital with a broken arm and ribs, and a detached retina.  And that is how he comes to meet the nurse Siobhan with the Lovely voice and ‘Mumbly Dave’, also laid up with a broken body and temporary blindness after a fall off a ladder.

The Thing About December is 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 growth.  The Thing about December is set before the economic bubble burst, when the rush for development inflated the price of land.  That (and some dodgy rezoning) means that the ‘orphan bachelor’ (as Johnsey is tagged by the newspapers) is sitting on land worth millions, but he doesn’t want to sell out of loyalty to his father’s memory and the generations that have gone before him.  With the land rezoned, and Johnsey’s parcel crucial to a major development, everyone in the village is greedy to reap the benefits.  Readers must make up their own minds about the sudden friendship of Siobhan and Mumbly Dave…

The Thing About December is a fine book.  The narration is brilliant, shifting between Johnsey’s introspections – so much more articulate in his head than he can ever convey in words – and an empathetic narrator who sees everything from Johnsey’s point-of-view.  Mother is a silent wraith but Daddy is still alive in Johnsey’s head all the time.  It’s a very effective technique.

Highly recommended.

Author: Donal Ryan
Title: The Thing About December
Publisher: Transworld, 2014
ISBN: 9780552773577
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond: The Thing About December


  1. Love the sound of this book and that opening quote is exquisite! I have The Spinning Heart on my shelves – I must get to it soon.


    • I think you will love it, there’s a lot of talk about more diversity in books at the moment, but here it is in this book, written more than five years ago about the fate of a man marginalised by his intellectual ability…


  2. I loved the Spinning Heart. That extract has sold me on this book. I absolutely have to go and get a copy of this now


    • Yes… it’s the sort of text worth memorising, the way we memorised speeches like ‘The quality of mercy’…


  3. I struggled with the Spinning Heart when I tried to read it years ago. I ended up abandoning it but think it was more the fact it just wanted the right time to read it (too much else going on in my life). One day I will dig it out and try again.


    • Yes, I remember struggling with it a bit, but it came together for me eventually. But this one is a better book than that, and more emotionally draining because of the focus on one very vulnerable character, so much like someone we all know.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] The Thing About December, by Donal Ryan […]


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