A Tale of Bottom-Feeders

Book Review  by Frances Devlin-Glass9781781620083-large

Donal Ryan: The Spinning Heart, Doubleday Ireland, London, 2013.

ISBN: 9781781620076

RRP: £12.99. Ebook available.

This book, by a new writer, comes heavily laden with credentials – the Guardian First Book Award (see press release); it was long-listed for both the Man Booker Prize 2013 and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2014, and won Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards in 2012. It does not disappoint.

Set in a small town near Limerick after the collapse of computer giant Dell during the GFC, it works at many levels as an analysis of the collapse of trust in a small community. It’s not just the economic collapse of the Tiger that’s under the scalpel here, but the loss of faith in one’s intimates. We move in and out of the lives of a very disparate community, as we piece together the story of Bobby’s alleged murder of his father and his community’s response to his being taken in by the police. It’s heart-breaking stuff as Bobby had every reason to kill his life-sucking father, but didn’t. The pathology of the relationship is summed up brilliantly in the central image of the book:

There’s a red metal heart in the centre of the low front gate, skewered on a rotating hinge. It’s flaking now; the red is nearly gone. It needs to be scraped and sanded and painted and oiled. It still spins in the wind, though. I can hear it creak, creak, creak as I walk away. A flaking creaking, spinning heart (p 9).

Bobby is the sort of man that might fix such an object, in someone else’s house, and it’s palpable that almost everyone in the village, except his father, loves him, but will they support Bobby in his hour of need?

Donal Ryan’s achievement is to have given us an in-depth analysis of the fallout from the Celtic Tiger’s demise, and more than that, the legacy of generations of inherited poverty and emotional impoverishment, through the vernacular of the plain person. The metal, damaged, spinning heart on his father’s gate becomes a powerful symbol for the broken relationships that beleaguer the virtuous Bobby, and corrode a good heart. Issues arising from economic collapse simply exacerbate generations of  inherited emotional dessication especially among men.

The novel touches on the guilt of parents, and their debilitating sense of helplessness in the face of learned ways of being humans, and males are very much in the author’s spotlight. Joseph Burke ruminates uncomfortable about his dishonest son, Pokey:

Did he turn bad or did he start out that way? Either way it’s my fault. There’s no getting away from it. I’m the boy’s father. His nature and his nurture were both down to me, when all is said and done. He got no badness from his mother, that’s for certain. Eamonn and Pokey were always mad about each other as small boys. How’s it they ended up so different? I did my damnedest not to make fish of one and flesh of the other; I counted out seconds in my head of time in my lap, the number of times I lifted each one up, the number of times I smiled at each one. Pokey had an unbelievable eye, though to see a slight so small there was nearly none at all…. He had a ledger inside in his head on which every single move I made was entered, and it never, ever balanced in his favour. I started resenting him, and nearly hated him. I did hate him. God forgive me, I should confess that. (p 25, Ryan’s emphasis)

Such self-scarifying, confess it or not, is every parent’s lot in the face of their children’s moral shortcomings. Ryan’s is a searching exposition of personal small failures which in a whole community confound and multiply effects, and finally, have the power to take down the innocent. Selling houses off the plan built out of ‘cardboard and masking tape’ (p 26) are only a symptom of a deeper malaise – a fundamental disconnect between fathers and sons.

The novel anatomises the new Ireland, by way of 21 short monologues. It’s an extraordinary discipline to build a community in this way, and to do so within the compass of a mere 150 pages. There is a representative from the Russian migrant workforce, vulnerable and easily exploited; there’s Timmy, the easily brutalised simple lad, farmed out to an uncaring extended family after the death of his mother in giving birth to him, for whom the highlight of his life is the day an uncle scoops up his siblings for an excruciatingly disappointing day at the beach; and there’s the ‘loser’ Brian drawn to the bright bikini girls and lifestyle of an Australia ‘turning against’ the Yahoo Irish louts, but who is prepared to resist the pleas to stay of his father and girlfriend and nonetheless dreads the airport goodbyes; and there’s Trevor, the hypochondriacal and schizoid Montessori teacher, capable, with the help of his narcissistic friend, Lloyd, addicted to a diet of fantasy adventure gaming, of kidnapping and perhaps even murder. The cast of bottom-feeding losers is huge, and they are profoundly damaged, by fathers, by poverty and often lack of education. What is impressive about these quickly (and very efficiently) drawn portraits is their lack of sentimentality (proper affect is provided by the reader), their individuality created through a range of widely different voices, and the way they cumulate, and circle around Bobby, and give us many perspectives on this lovable character who is alleged to have murdered his father, and seems to believe his accusers.

Women are treated more sympathetically: one is invited to feel for the town whore, Lily, who is despised by her big farmer occasional lover who disowns the son she scrimps and saves to send to university. Her being denied a seat at his graduation by the upwardly mobile son is cruel. Lily knows what it is to love and it seems primal, inescapable:

 I love all my children the same way a swallow loves the blue sky; I have no choice in the matter. Like the men that came to my door, nature overpowers me. I cry over them in the dark of night. I often wake up calling their names’ (p 33)

For all her despair (and she is driven to suicide by child-hunger and a radical failure of meaning), Lily can claim ‘sure wasn’t I at least the author of my own tale?’ (p 34). Réaltín, the lass who lives virtually alone on the failed estate, has a sense that however the world has dealt with her, she will succour those  close to her – notably her son, Dylan, and her father who goes out of his way to normalise what is not normal by gardening the whole estate for her sake. She will not allow the ‘Dublin Four arsehole’ (a news cameraman exposing ‘ghost estates’) to feast off her misfortune, though she wouldn’t mind showing off her gorgeous toddler on national television, and she won’t agree to take back the child’s presumed father – ‘All he’s good for is drinking and shagging floozies’ (p 45, Ryan’s emphasis).

The tragedy is that it’s the town’s misconception that Bobby has filled the gap in her life which constitutes the only grounds for accepting that he might be a murderer – a leap too far to be just. Perhaps the most complex of the monologues is given to the dead father, Frank, who for the first time in his life has wise insights (he even glorifies them as ‘revelations’ and ‘epiphanies’) into his own son, and maybe a modicum of understanding of his own role in turning him into a ‘kicked pup’ (p 141): he saw his version of ‘discipline ‘s necessary corrective to his wife’s sweetness and her loving behaviour towards their son. Only Triona, Bobby’s loyal partner, knows that Frank might have had other motives for his vicious tongue-lashings. The violence he enacts with his tongue is inherited from his father. That Bobby has avoided that legacy is another reason to enjoy his characterisation as a mild, succouring, self-effacing man, and one who had consciously avoided the ‘herd of donkeys’ that were his peer group. ‘[F]ear, doubt, shyness, sadness’ (p 147), the opposite of attributes held to be ‘manly’, are the attributes that make him human and lift him out of the ruck.

Perhaps the most powerful moment in the book is the one in which an impotent guard, one who in his decency knows Bobby to be innocent, but is bound by Bobby’s confession to act in ways that are different from his own knowledge of the accused, makes a comparison between the lack of trust after the collapse of the Tiger to the passions aroused during the Troubles:

It’s in the air, in the way people are moving around each other with grim faces and shining eyes, either all frantic activity or standing in tight groups, talking quietly and looking at the ground. This must be how things were in the time of the war against the British when a crowd outside of Mass would suddenly explode into a flying column, guns appearing from under overcoats, killers appearing from inside of ordinary people. They were good killings, though – the Tans burned churches and creameries, interfered with women and shot little children. That was a time when killing was for good, for God and country. That time is long gone. But aren’t we still the same people?  (p 138)

I would not want to suggest that Jim’s views are identifiable with the author’s, but the comment does indicate the strength of feeling, the sense of a time deeply out of joint, and perhaps worse because it is, in the contemporary crisis, a kind of civil war when neighbour comes out to harm neighbour out of greed, perversion or madness. The old social cohesion is unraveling, and easy money during the madness of the boom is seen as the root cause of this.

This is a tough novel, but a tender one often. It’s to be hoped that the pathologies the novel exposes will progressively become a thing of the past, but there’s not a lot of hope in this powerful blend of satire and affection. I strongly recommend this novel. It’s worth multiple readings.


Frances taught literature at Deakin University for many decades.

One thought on “A Tale of Bottom-Feeders

  1. I have not been able to get through to Comments for Frances’s review of this new novel by Donal Ryan. It is a wonderful, nay beautiful review. It makes me anxious to read it. Congratulations to Frances. Peter.

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