I always have so much fun choosing books for Reading Ireland Month, but then never seem to have enough time to fit them all in. Two years ago (already!) I was the lucky winner of Cathy’s giveaway for A Slanting of the Sun by Donal Ryan, and had planned to read it last year, but read Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave instead. So this year, when The Spinning Heart caught my eye, I thought it would be a good chance to read both books, so I could experience his writing and compare the two.
There are two things about this book that I particularly love; the structure and the language.
This book tells the story of a village in Ireland during financial crisis. Each chapter is narrated by a different character, and with all the connections between the characters, we gradually get a story of the village as a whole. I love this way of telling a story so much that it could be pretty much about anything (or nothing at all) and I’d read it. I love seeing the way each character interacts with the others and how they fit into the story.
Donal Ryan doesn’t seem to hold back when it comes to using dialect that many of us might have trouble understanding. But because it’s done well, even the hardest phrases to decipher are decipherable in context. And the voice of the character is so much richer for it. What fun it was to listen to these people. (Be sure to check out Cathy’s post; A User’s Guide to Northern Ireland Slang.)
The story is not a fun story, however – there are some tough issues to be dealt with in this village; abuse, regret, mental illness, and violence. One man feels obligated to visit his father every day, while at the same time fantasizes about ending his father’s life. Because of the lifestyle she lived, one woman finds herself alone in her golden years, after working so hard to care for her children, all of whom have different fathers. Another woman has never gotten over the loss of her son. Many unhappy, restless construction workers are left without their pay. A woman’s husband is curled up on the couch, unresponsive, and useless for anything. This is just a taste of what you will find in these characters’ lives. “Through a chorus of unique voices, each struggling to tell their own kind of truth, a single authentic tale unfolds.”
A few of the unique voices…
I thought about killing my father all day yesterday. There are ways, you know, to kill a man, especially an old, frail man, which wouldn’t look like murder. It wouldn’t be murder anyway, just putting the skids under nature. It’s only badness that sustains him…. I wouldn’t like to see his eyes while I killed him; he’d be laughing at me, I know well he would. He’d still be telling me I’m only a useless prick, a streak of piss, a shame to him, even and he’s dying.
I definitely have skin cancer. Mother never used sunblock on me when I was a child. She murdered me when I was a child by giving me skin cancer. A slow, undetectable murder, a preemptive strike, a perfect crime.
We’re all afraid of our lives of upsetting our parents. Why is it at all? Why have we to be bound by this fear of the feelings of others? Is it because my actions will always affect them? Am I the anti-matter particle to their matter particle, always having a direct effect on each other, even with a galaxy between us? Will the earth’s largest ocean be deep enough to drown my guilt? Whoo boy, I have to stop thinking. I’ll be writing in a diary next, like a right prick.
A lot of those culchies are mad, though. They’re so repressed, like. They all spend their whole lives going to Mass and playing GAA and eating farm animals and cabbage and not saying how they’re feeling until it’s too late and then BANG!They kill someone. Or themselves. They’re just as mad as the city lunatics, except the city lunatics are honest about their scumbaggery.
Everyone thinks I’m a gas, that I don’t give a shit about anything. I never told anyone about the blackness I feel sometimes, weighing me down and making me think things I don’t want to think. It was always there, but I never knew what it was until every prick started talking about depression and mental health and all that shite. I’m not mentaller, like. I’m not.I just can’t see for the blackness sometimes.
Daddy done a rudey this morning at breakfast and Mammy went mad. She called him a smelly bastard and told him farting was all he was good for.
I was never able to talk to that boy without upsetting him. His mother had a fool made out of him, kissing him and telling him he was beautiful every two minutes. I was forced to bring balance. I had to prepare him for the hard world.
What matters only love?
Like in The Spinning Heart, this collection of stories tells about the lives of many characters through first person narration, pulling the reader intimately close to the narrator. Although most of the stories are very short, this style of writing packs an emotional punch. For example, in “The Squad“, the very first line sucked me right in: “The sky the day we shot the boy was clear and blue.”
I could probably say something about every one of these stories, but there are a few that stood out for me. In A Passion, a boy kills his girlfriend in a car accident. His parents no longer know how to relate to him, and he feels compulsively drawn to his girlfriend’s grieving mother. In The Squad, an elderly man ruminates about the day he and his buddies decided to help out another friend by taking justice into their own hands. By doing so, he feels he has “forfeited” his own life to guilt, shame, and “the cold arms of the waiting years”. Nephthys and the Lark unsettled me as I read about a woman going about her day as an affectionate and caring mother and wife; talking with her family at the breakfast table, taking her teenage kids to school, doing a few household chores, going for a walk around the block. Then she goes to work, an evening shift at a care home for adults, and becomes shockingly brutal, her ability to bully the patients into what she wants them to do seems to please her. Physiotherapy is a story about a marriage, all told in five pages from beginning to end, the joy and the suffering, and by the end I was crying. “I’m seventy-seven and I’m twenty, my child is dead and he hasn’t yet been born, there’s a thickening of the air about me again in this day room, in this honeymoon suite, and my heart is slowing and my mind is quickening and the arms are tight around me and the breath and tears are on my face of the man I pledged to God to love and honour all my days.” The title story, A Slanting of the Sun is a haunting story of regret and redemption. I get a lump in my throat just thinking about it.
… humankind wasn’t commanded or battled over or even thought about by any divine or lowly thing but we were all only accidents of the meeting of flesh, flesh wrought from the meeting of tiny things wrought by a chance slanting of the sun, things without meaning or rhyme.
It seems clear after reading these two books that one of Ryan’s strong points is giving his characters unique and compelling voices. This is the kind of writing that tells me that I’m likely to enjoy anything of his I pick up, no matter how bleak or depressing it may be. I am happy to have finally been introduced to his writing.
Best first and last lines from a story (Trouble):
The ways of some things are set like the blueness of the sky.
The ways of some things are set, like the courses of rivers or the greenness of grass, or the trouble that follows my daddy, or the hard light of knowing in people’s eyes.
This is the first time I’ve come across being “unfriended” in literature. And when I think about it, it’s a very unfriendly thing. And can be devastating to someone.
The world is filled with unwelcome words. Insolvent. Bankrupt. Unfriended. […] Unfriended. It’s not even a proper verb, only an ugly confection of a word to describe the deletion of a thing that never really existed.
A few more good passages…
… I’ll never again walk as tall as I did that day. Before that lady looked at me, and divided and shrunk me, and wiped me off of herself, without even knowing she was doing it. And she never thinking for a second she was anything but kind.
Her daughter’s world seemed compressed sometimes into the screen of that telephone; all of her tides turned at the pull of its gravity, her whole existence seemed wedded to it.
The houses of this road are strung with sorrow, like rows of old houses anywhere. A map of loss platted all down it.
There’s an echo now that was never there before; all the soft downy things are gone, there’s nothing to swallow the sounds of me.
F**k you, Finbar, I said, out loud, but no one heard. And those words are floating gently still around the universe. I hope he never hears them.
Thanks to Cathy at 746Books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging for hosting Reading Ireland Month. And to TJ at My Book Strings for recommending I read The Spinning Heart when I was trying to make my up my mind.
Read anything Irish lately?