The Clonmel writer Ronan Ryan’s debut novel, The Fractured Life of Jimmy Dice, plays with an omniscient narrator, shifting timelines and viewpoints, and then the titular character’s written testimony.
Rather than enhance an ambitious novel, these ploys mostly confuse and frustrate — it’s as if Ryan is trying to keep himself entertained with myriad plot devices.
Set in the fictional Tipperary town of Rathbaile, Jimmy ‘Dice’ is born into the Diaz family, which has known tragedy: We are taken back to grandfather Arturo’s decision in the 1940s to follow his brother to Spain to fight on the losing side of the civil war; his wife Maggie is the focus as Art tells her of the regrettable/essential act that led him to Ireland; Jimmy’s mother sees his mental health debilitate, taking a toll on his father.
Jimmy, who earns his misleading nickname from a night of gambling with friends who turn on each other, survives birth but his twin doesn’t.
She is our narrator: “As a conscientious narrator, I’ll try to keep embellishments to a minimum, but I make no promises.”
Later: “I must believe I’m more than an echo. I refuse to be merely that.”
She’s able to look into the minds of those surrounding Jimmy, see their usually tragic paths, and tell us their heartless deeds.
Jimmy’s brother Paul is killed at the age of five, our protagonist loses an arm to a pack of rabid dogs when he’s seven — his older brother let him off to play unsupervised because his girlfriend came over — and later, Jimmy cuts off three of his own fingers when he’s wanted by Dublin gangsters for an unpaid debt, a scene that will leave you squirming.
He later tells us: “My chief ambition is to not lose more body parts.”
Ryan tries to tell a love story — too many of them — as well as an Enright-like fracturing family, a coming-of-age tale, a crime spree, and, per the press release: “The story of a life in the changing streets of Ireland, from the days of the troubles to the boom and bust years and Dublin today.”
(The press release also makes a fallacious comparison of Ryan to Colin Barrett, Kevin Barry, Donal Ryan, and Lisa McInerney.)
The main love story does not begin until halfway through this bloated novel, and we already know it ends in tragedy.
The unsuspecting Jimmy, however, who previously shrugged off the fact he was a twin, does not know the real, awful reason behind the loss of the love of his life, Nicole.
Their trip to London, meanwhile, involving copious drink and drugs, foreshadows the increasingly depraved nature of Jimmy’s older brother, Tighe.
Despite its many missteps, The Fractured Life of Jimmy Dice is quietly compelling. Jimmy’s whirlwind romance with Nicole is convincing, one chapter titled ‘Acrotomophiliac Love’.
Ryan’s rendering of Jimmy’s parents, Eamon and Grace, is particularly successful.
Lying in bed early in their relationship, “He understands that experience is transitory, but you should still try to hold on when something’s perfect.”
After their son Paul is killed in a hit and run, traumatising his sister Elizabeth, Grace succumbs to the mental illness that affected her own mother. Eamon is steadfast in staying by her side, seemingly sacrificing his own life.
The novel spirals in its second half. Jimmy moves home (“the changing story of Ireland” part of the book), can’t hold down a relationship post-Nicole, and suffers further hardship and fracturing.
Ryan is no doubt ambitious, but it is disappointing that his debut peters out.
At its best it keeps you wondering how it can possibly get worse for the unlucky Jimmy Dice; at its worst, it’s a tangled mess that will leave the reader wading through.