In “The Spinning Heart,’’ the opening image of a “red metal heart in the centre of the low front gate, skewered on a rotating hinge . . . [a] flaking, creaking, spinning heart” symbolically ties together the plot and the many characters in Irish writer Donal Ryan’s debut novel.
Told by 21 narrators (we never hear from the same character twice), Ryan’s compelling, insightful tale chronicles the lives of the residents of a tightknit, rural town in the aftermath of the Irish economic collapse. This short, swift, brutally funny romp through the fallout of a national disaster points to the likelihood of emotional crisis when one’s livelihood and purpose disappear without warning.
At the center is Bobby Mahon, a locally well-known and respected building foreman who gets cheated out of his job and unemployment benefits by Pokey, a corrupt but charismatic boss, who “rowed us up the creek and left us there.” Bobby states the situation simply: “Imagine being so suddenly useless.”
Although a great strength of the book is Ryan’s ability to capture the vernacular of contemporary Ireland and its diverse citizens, from newly arrived immigrants to jaded old men “drinking the farm” in local pubs to young, enterprising university graduates with stacks of useless ambition — the story itself might take place in any country affected by the disastrous economic upheavals of recent years.
Over the course of the novel we get a kaleidoscopic view of the town’s residents, their stories of their own lives, and various takes on the kidnapping of a young boy and the accusation that Bobby killed his own father.
The cast of characters is diverse, ranging from the town prostitute to a “blow-in” (a woman not originally from the town) who stays in her house in a failed estate complex “like one good tooth in a row of decaying ones” to Bobby’s father, a “horror of a man.” Each takes a turn speaking to the reader in the first person, revealing thwarted dreams and twisted desires that rise to the surface.
They are depressed, perverted, suicidal, both kind and cruel to a fault, occasionally misguided, ethical, confused, solipsistic, and all bound by the rules of an insular community where to reveal anything is to reveal too much.
The novel’s structure occasionally feels too mosaic and fractured, and readers may find themselves longing for a more linear, propulsive plot that relies on scenes that turn the action forward rather than chapters arranged as monologues.
However, Ryan still engages the reader in this insular, fascinating world bound by the “whole mad Irish country thing of keeping secrets. . . . It’s nearly like a kind of embarrassment, not wanting to say anything about yourself for fear you’ll be judged or looked on as foolish.”
The image of the spinning heart — a symbol of both togetherness and estrangement — is at the center of this chorus of voices, bound together for better or worse.
One character reflects, after the two central conflicts of the novel have been resolved: “The air is thick with platitudes around here. We’ll all pull together. We’re a tight-knit community. We’ll all support each other. Oh really? Will we?”
These are painfully relevant questions for all of us, and Ryan’s novel imagines people responding to this challenge in the best and most disastrous ways.
Emily Rapp, author of “Poster Child: A Memoir” and “The Still Point of the Turning World,” a New York Times bestseller, teaches in the MFA program at the University of California Palm Desert.