The Spinning Heart, by Donal Ryan

The deserved winner of the Guardian First Book Award 2013, this novel is powerfully economical, with Donal Ryan showing skilful storytelling with his unusual choice of structure. The novel tells the story of an Irish community shaken by the recent financial crisis, and is initially focussed on the character Bobby, whose distinctive voice sucks the reader in from the opening sentence of the first chapter. However it is soon apparent that each chapter is narrated by a different person, each a member of the same community, although incredibly diverse; ranging from a bereaved mother to an Eastern European worker, from an ageing prostitute to a primary school teacher. 21 narrators in all, each with their own story to tell, and each telling a collective overarching story. The thread of Bobby’s story rises to the fore throughout the novel, despite the fact that we never hear his own narration again – this is a clever piece of writing.

Yet as we all know, writing should not be praised just for being ‘clever’. Many a clever book can be dull as anything to read. This is certainly not the case here. The Spinning Heart manages to turn readers into fanatics because each of its narrators is convincingly lifelike and has a unique voice. Each piece they contribute to the novel’s jigsaw is to be cherished as a glimpse into a very believable society. Therefore its cleverness is not why this book is to be appreciated, but remains the mechanism behind its success. If the entire book were told from Bobby’s point of view, the story would not make so much of an impression – in fact, it would barely exist. It is the interweaving of each little plot strand that builds the novel, and each new angle which makes the characters whole.

The Spinning Heart has been praised by the critics: not only did it win the Guardian First Book Award, but it was long-listed for the Man Booker, and won two of the Irish Book Awards. No doubt Donal Ryan will go on to win many more. It is important to note, however, that The Spinning Heart was also the favourite book of the majority of the readers’ panels for the Guardian First Book Award – it’s not popular due to its ‘literary’ nature; it is a very enjoyable and moving read. Donal Ryan deserves a place among the literary greats, but shouldn’t just be praised for writing a book ‘for our time’ or for being a new star among the ‘great Irish novelists’. His work may draw upon themes well-established in Irish literature, his novel may have captured the financial crisis better than any newspaper column – but above all else – he’s written an excellent story, having hit upon the perfect way to tell it.


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