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Donal Ryan is a writer who likes a quirky timeline. His previous works have tended to take the form of successive short stories from different viewpoints and Strange Flowers is more of the same. We meet Kit and Paddy Gladney, tenant farmers in Tipperary. Their daughter Moll, a good girl, has left home without leaving a trace. They are bewildered. They grieve. They feel the eyes of the village boring into them. Then, after five years, Moll returns. Successive sections follow different characters at different life stages until a final section allows Moll to fill in the gaps. The narrative voice – which has been done so well in previous of Ryan’s works, is every bit as good here. Lilting Irish idiom places the characters as subservient to their setting. It could be timeless (and for much of the first section the time setting is obscure), but modern details of a wider world – Dublin, London, aeroplanes – encroach. The story is intriguing, too, and explores themes of property ownership, race, ambition, sexuality. How and ever, there is a big biblical theme running through the work. The sections are named for books of the Bible. There is a meta-narrative woven into one section about Jesus restoring sight to a blind man. I am prepared to believe that many of the set pieces are directly analogous to Biblical scenes or parables – but not being up on my Scripture I think these all passed me by. Maybe there was some big message about people being more than a sum of their traits and appearances but that’s really rather an obvious statement. My own thinking about referential novels is that it’s fun when you get the references but they don’t really add to the profundity of the work. Overall this felt like a very tightly controlled novel where sometimes the structure felt a little too rigid, forcing the pace and sequencing of information. Much of Joshua’s section, for example, only really became meaningful from reading subsequent sections. I am a great believer in show, don’t tell – but if you are going to tell, then do it at the same time as you are showing. The shifts in point of view and time were abrupt – intentionally so as that seems to be Donal Ryan’s thang – but I wonder whether it might have been possible to create a more powerful and sympathetic work from interweaving some of the threads. Still glad to have read Strange Flowers, but my three and a half stars feel like they should have been more. ***1/2
From a Low and Quiet Sea is a difficult book to categorise. Is it a novel? Is it stories? Does it matter? In this case, I think it does. Most novels have a clear narrative arc. There is a beginning where we are introduced to characters and situations, then there is a quest where someone is looking for something, and then there's the end - usually when that something has been found (a happy novel) or irredeemably lost (a tragic novel). There will be a major plot development at exactly half way through, and mini-changes at one and two thirds of the way through. It makes for a satisfying, if somewhat predictable pace. Sometimes great novels depart from the formula in spectacular style. But attempting this is a gamble; it can make a novel feel tricksy and badly paced. Despite some brilliant writing at the sentence level, I fear that Low and Quiet Sea is a bit of a busted flush. Basically, we have three stand-alone stories. Farouk is a man fleeing an unnamed war-torn country by boat in the Mediterranean. Probably Syria, but possibly Libya. This is written in a highly stylised manner, conveying an exotic culture and working as a proxy for a different values system to the anticipated reader. It feels quite like Mohsin Hamid's Exit West, but dealing with the journey as much as the before and after. Lampy is a man who might be quite bright, but his ambition exceeds his prospects and right now he is driving a bus for an aged care facility in the West of Ireland. He lives at home with his mother and (possibly senile) grandfather and spends his time trying to find the woman of his dreams. John is a wealthy accountant who speaks in religious tones but who seems to have had a pretty earthly life. In each of the stories, the focus is on the character with details unfolding slowly to create a ruler picture. Each is written in a quite distinctive voice with perfect tone and a poet's attention to detail. Truly these are gems. And they represent about 80% of the book. Then, there's a final section that follows three women - the breaks between these three sub-narratives is intentionally un-signposted. From these narratives, we see how the three male characters fit together (and they don't fit together terribly much, if the truth be told) and we see enough external perspective to make us reassess (although not completely revise) our estimation of the three male characters. This section is terribly hard to follow; the reader has to have pretty close recall of the earlier sections and hold a lot of oblique references together to really create a map of how everyone fits into the somewhat scant story. The conclusion, at least for this reader, is that this is a work of technical brilliance and innovation, but one where the pace and balance feel all wrong. Yes it is enjoyable, but it's not that satisfying. So how do you score a book that has probably achieved the author's objectives completely, but where the author's ambition does not quite coincide with the product the reader desires? If ever there were a case for three and a half stars, this is it. ***1/2
If your debut novel is longlisted for the Booker Prize, it's hard to write a follow up. But within months, Donal Ryan has supplemented his astonishiong debut, The Spinning Heart, with a prequel, The Thing About December. The new novel takes up a storyline mentioned in passing in the first pages of The Spinning Heart - the life of Johnsey Cunliffe, the man whose land was so disastrously developed in The Spinning Heart. Johnsey is an awkward man. It's not quite clear whether he has a learning disability or whether he is simply eccentric, but he doesn't fit in his rural Tipperary community. But unlike the worlds of John McGahern or Laim O'Flaherty, Johnsey is not looked after by a caring society. Oh no, he is mercilessly bullied from schoolage on through into young adulthood. His playground tormetors hang out drinking at the IRA memorial taunting Johnsey whenever he passes on his way to a make-work job offered by a family friend. Their jibes land - and so too do their kicks and punches. The Thing About December is narrated as a single, linear story unfolding over twelve consecutive months. In each month, Johnsey is reminded of events past as he faces the purgatory of his present. We see the death of his parents, his loneliness, his guilt at being bullied. And, the thing is, there is nothing Johnsey could possibly do to redeem himself. He tries wearing cool clothes, he tries to make friends, but each attempt is doomed to fail. And then, as he inherits hios parents' farm and that farm starts to attract property speculators, it looks as though Johnsey might have hit the jackpot. But instead, he finds himself made a victim by scammers and chancers, seeking to part him from his fortune. The menace and injustice builds and builds with each passing month. It is a sad, inevitable, violent tale. And it dispels any sense of romance in rural Irish life. The writing is clear, albeit peppered with Irishisms. The use of a conventional narrative (as distinct from the 21 individual narrators of The Spinning Heart) makes for a deeper, more complext story with more three dimensional characters. But the constant reliance on Johnsey for a Point of View does leave room for ambiguity. How far, we ask, does Johnsey goad his tormentors. Particularly in the final scene, there appears to be a missing step that might infer that Johnsey is not entirely an innocent. There are also questions throughout regarding the benificence or othewise of the Unthanks. This is good, because after the genius of The Spinning Heart there is a risk that more conventional storytelling could feel a little flat. For the most part, Donal Ryan avoids this. If there is a nagging concern, it is that Ryan's first two books tell different stages of the same story. One hopes Ryan has more material at his disposal and doesn't just keep retelling the same stuff over again - that can get old pretty quickly. On balance, though, this is a good follow up to The Spinning Heart without, perhaps, matching its inventiveness or its perfect capture of a specific moment of Irish history. ****0
The Spinning Heart is a metal heart, set in the gate of Frank Mahon's house. It spins round and round in the wind, never going anywhere. The novel opens with a first person narrative from Bobby Mahon. Bobby was a builder's foreman, working for his old friend Pokey Burke. As is well documented, the Irish economy benefited enormously from a property bubble in the 1990s-2000s and some people got very rich, very quickly. But by the time we meet Bobby, the bubble has burst; the Celtic Tiger has lost its roar. Pokey has scarpered, leaving his workmen and his investors in deep trouble. Bobby's immediate financial problems would be eased greatly if his father would only die and leave Bobby his land whilst it still had some small amount of value. But Frank seems to get healthier by the minute and Bobby sits watching the price of land trickling away to nothing. After a few pages, the narrative baton passes on to Josie, and then on through a series of 21 different narrators. At first it seems as though each narrator is just giving a different perspective on the same predicament. But as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that each narrative adds to the detail of a quite distinct plot. But given the individual perspectives, it is interesting to sometimes see the same events told through very different lenses. The reader's perceptions of people need to be constantly readjusted. Telling a story with 21 points of view, none of which is revisited, is an immense feat of skill. That the narratives manage to convince, written in differing voices and dialects that sound authentic and avoid sounding samey, is a work of genius. Donal Ryan avoids the temptation to give characters tics or quirks and this can make the reader want to zip back and check previous passages just to confirm who is who. But at the same time, Ryan uses enough signposts to guide an alert reader around the narrative. The novel is short, but there's a lot in it and it isn't a terribly quick read. The voices do slow the reader down - and that's necessary if the reader isn't going to miss out on vital detail. There are sub-plots and scheming, most of which make sense. There is an excellent insight into the petty rivalries and jealousies between smalltown Ireland and "the boondocks". The novel is set in Tipperary, but it could just as easily be in Cavan, or Louth, or Offally or Carlow. The shattered dreams are found all over Ireland and these responses to the slump will stand to tell future generations just how bad it got. The Spinning Heart is a novel that has humanity and warmth amongst the heartbreak. It is compelling reading and has a social importance. And like the spinning heart of the title, it shows that what goes around, comes around. *****