Reading Ireland Month: Donal Ryan

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.

The Spinning Heart

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?

A Slanting of the Sun

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?


36 thoughts on “Reading Ireland Month: Donal Ryan

  1. JacquiWine says:

    The Spinning Heart is very cleverly constructed, isn’t it? And the mix of distinctive voices works so well. I read it with my book group, and it gave ride to a really interesting discussion about the financial crisis and the fallout from that period in time. Glad you enjoyed it too.

  2. FictionFan says:

    He’s a writer I’ve been meaning to try for ages and some of those quotes are wonderful. Somehow I’ll have to try to fit him in. Maybe next Begorrathon! Great review – thank you! 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      I would recommend him to anyone except for readers who really don’t like bleak stories. But then I think, how can you even avoid bleak stories, if you’re a reader? They’re everywhere!
      Anyway, I hope you get to try his books sometime! The quotes were hard to choose from – there were so many good ones!

    • Grab the Lapels says:

      I think I’m channeling my inner Fiction Fan because my first thought was, “Ugh, why is it all wallowing doom and gloom??” Even Ice Cube made a movie to show people that Compton wasn’t always bad; there were some good times, too.

      • FictionFan says:

        Hahaha! Well, I’ve been talked into it, after this review and another one, so I may have to borrow your inner FictionFan when I come to write the review… 😉

      • Naomi says:

        It’s hard to explain, but there *are* good things in these stories and lives as well as bad. A few of the characters even seem perfectly content with their lives, even though reading about them made me feel unsettled. Ryan does a good job making his characters seem human – good, bad, happy, sad, lonely, angry, conflicted – and sometimes many of these things all at once, which is how most of us walk around all the time, isn’t it?

      • Naomi says:

        I love that cartoon! Thanks for the link!
        I’ve read a few things lately that talk about our search for happiness actually making us less happy. Which makes sense. And the message in the cartoon also makes sense. Sometimes I think there’s too much pressure on people to be happy.
        Having said that, I have to admit that I have always considered myself to generally be a happy person. But that’s okay, too. 🙂

  3. susanosborne55 says:

    I enjoyed both of these but my favourite book by him is the latest: All That We Shall Know. Absolutely agree with you about his use of language. He has a wonderful ear for dialogue. Loved that post of Cathy’s!

  4. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    I am so happy to hear you liked The Spinning Heart. I’m not sure I’ll have time to write a review before Reading Ireland Month ends, so I am extra glad that you did. Like you, I think that I will like anything he writes.

    • Naomi says:

      I have been watching for your review! I was planning to link to it if it showed up. I just got this done in the nick of time – that Canada Reads always getting in the way! 🙂

  5. buriedinprint says:

    Oh, these both sound amazing. I can’t choose, so I’ll have to add them both to my TBR. And, then, by the sounds of it, I’ll be hankering to read other stuff by him.

    I borrowed about 6 books from the library with Reading Ireland in mind, then settled into one of my own (Kate O’Brien’s Without A Cloak, a book my grandmother probably would’ve loved but it’s not really thrilling me) and I suspect I’ll be reading Ireland for a few months yet, at least until I can’t renew all these lovely things anymore. You know the scene?

    • Naomi says:

      I know! It’s nice to have the push to read certain books, but sometimes the timing doesn’t always work out perfectly. 🙂
      I was pretty pleased with myself for reading one from the library and one of my own. Better than *none* of my own!
      I liked his books so much that I’m tempted to go back to him again next year, but I feel like that wouldn’t be fair to all the other Irish writers!

  6. Cathy746books says:

    I loved both these books, although to be fair, I love all his books. You’ve reminded me how beautiful that story Physiotherapy is. I’m going to read it again tonight. Lovely review x

  7. Lisa Hill says:

    I’m just scraping into Reading Ireland Month with my second choice – but I haven’t finished the book…
    It’s Finnegans Wake! Yes, at last I’ve started it, and I’ve read the first chapter, and I’m going to blog my progress through it bit by bit, *chuckle* probably finishing it in time for next year’s RI Month. You can read my adventures so far with this tag:

  8. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    I just posted my review of Ryan’s All We Shall Know- it was really good! I loved reading your thoughts on these. I agree, even though the situations are bleak, there’s something so compelling and vital about his writing. I’ll be adding these to my TBR.

    • Naomi says:

      Donal Ryan is a popular choice this year – maybe something to do with his newest book coming out recently. Off to check out your review!

  9. AYearOfBooksBlog says:

    This is the first time that I have learned of Read Ireland Month but then again, I have been “consumed” with Canada Reads! I will add these two to my massive tbr pile too!

    • Naomi says:

      March is a busy month for good reading challenges. I’m always interested in Reading Ireland and Women in Science History, but can’t usually fit them both in, as well as the Canada Reads books. Oh well, it’s fun trying!

  10. The Cue Card says:

    Thanks for introducing me to Donal Ryan and his works! He has a way with words and his sentences can pack a punch; his stories seem quite unsettling but good too.

  11. DoingDewey says:

    My impression of books by Irish authors is that they’re all pretty dark, with the notable exception of Cecelia Ahern. Have you noticed the same thing?

  12. Annabel (gaskella) says:

    I’ve only read his latest, All That We Shall Know, and I loved it – despite its slightly difficult subject matter, it has a fiesty and grumpy heroine, and some wonderful dialogue done with a lightness that makes it more powerful. I’m going to have to find The Spinning Heart – you’ve intrigued me on that one.

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