The book I’m most looking forward to reading on the Man Booker longlist this year, The Luminaries, still hasn’t been released in Australia, so I’m biding my time reading other, smaller entries on the list. Dónal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart is a debut novel, and one of three Irish authors to be longlisted. But while Colm Tóibín and Colum McCann deal with history in their entries, Ryan’s novel is about contemporary Ireland, about the fallout from the European Financial Crisis.
A new housing development in Ireland has collapsed in the wake of the European Financial Crisis, and no one is safe from the effects. Builders, property developers and young mothers have all found themselves poorer because of the forces of globalisation, and they are quickly discovering that life in the new paradigm takes some getting used to.
My engagement with Irish fiction and literature is limited, to say the least, but I couldn’t help but feel that Ryan seemed to be pulling out all the clichés people might usually associate with it. The novel’s tone is unrepentantly bleak, and no one seems satisfied with their lot in life. To be fair, almost every character’s life is far from ideal—and I’m not advocating some kind of false hope—but this is just another long line of Irish novels that feeds into the idea of depressing Irish literature (see also, The Gathering and The Dead School). We can be thankful the characters in The Spinning Heart made it through their journeys without any hint of sexual assault.
I wrote a few weeks ago about Kristina Carlson’s short novel, Mr Darwin’s Gardener, and the lack of clarity that work had because of its fractured narrative structure. In many ways, The Spinning Heart suffers from the same structural problem. In his attempt to highlight just how many have been adversely affected by the collapse of the housing market in Ireland, Ryan fails to make his readers care about anyone in particular. By dehumanising the individuals in his tale, he highlights the fact that this is a national problem, a conundrum that has affected everyone in Ireland, no matter what they do or who they are.
What strikes me as most interesting in this novel, though, is the construction of a masculine identity in contemporary Ireland, particularly in younger generations. Left without jobs to go to , many men who might otherwise have found employment in the construction and physical labour industries are left to either scrounge for the few positions that still exist, or move to Australia. (As a Sydneysider, I can vouch that the latter option is based on real life.) No longer able to provide for their families, they spend their days in bars, chasing women, or trying to woo back women they’ve hurt in the past.
The picture of Ireland Ryan paints in The Spinning Heart is not a pretty one. People have been reduced to nothing but ciphers in a society where no one has answers to the problems. They have been promised all the riches of capitalism, and those promises have come crashing down faster than anyone could have imagined. And while Ireland’s national psyche is impeccably evoked, this occurs at the expense of relatable, interesting characters.