Donal Ryan’s debut novel is an evocative portrayal of a small Irish town following the recent financial crash. The Spinning Heart presents the voices of a variety of individuals, each giving their perspective on life in the town at a particular moment and centring on the same act of murder. Throughout the novel, stories of acts of violence and darkness begin to unravel and there is a sense of all not being as it seems . Ryan’s novel is written as a series of first person narrative pieces, each in the voice of one individual communicating the distinctiveness of their personality to the reader. However, the plot develops through the references to the main protagonists made by a number of the more marginal characters. As the central protagonist, Bobby’s testimony opens the novel poignantly and encapsulates the main themes of The Spinning Heart: “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 oiled. It still spins in the wind, though. I can hear it, creak, creak, creak as I walk away. A flaking, creaking, spinning heart.”
The spinning heart refers to an old metal heart in the front gate of Bobby’s murdered father’s house. It symbolises a faded sadness and a “mocking symbol” of lost love and hope, not only for Bobby and his family but for the whole town. The overall sense is of an emptiness and loss of financial security and of personal happiness, with perhaps a vestige of hope with its small piece of red, neatly paralleled with the final sentence: “What matters only love?”.
Most of the other characters refer to Bobby directly through their reaction to and their experience of him, offering their opinion on whether he murdered his father. Others speak of him indirectly through the sub-plot relating to Realtin, with whom Bobby is accused of having an affair, and even of the abduction of her child, Dylan. Each individual reveals their own issues and uncertainties. Some have their own testimony and others, such as Pokey Burke, are portrayed only through others. Relationships and inter-connections between characters are cleverly woven together as the narrative develops. References to Bobby are generally of a kind, gentle person of good character, such as Jason, who had been offered a job by Bobby after being discharged from the army with post traumatic shock. Jason thinks Bobby “fair sound” while another character, the Siberian worker, comments that Bobby’s ”voice is soft”.
However, the way in which gossip can be insidious in small communities, building up into a quagmire of mistrust and suspicion, is highlighted by the varying responses to Bobby’s alleged act of murder. Questions then arise as to his potential infidelity with Realtin and even to the possibility of his involvement in the abduction of Realtin’s child. The underlying sense of darkness and fear in the community following the financial uncertainties is exacerbated by the acts of violence of the murder and the kidnap. It is the testimony of Bobby’s wife, Triona, which ends the novel and gives an overview of the sense of hollowness and mistrust in the town: “The air is thick with platitudes around here. We’ll all pull together. We’re a tight-knit community. We’ll all support each other. Oh really? Will we?”
With its well-crafted, evocative style and assured narrative development, The Spinning Heart is certainly an excellent debut novel from Donal Ryan that was worthy of inclusion in the longlist for the Man Booker Prize.