Book review: A Slanting of the Sun

SINCE being plucked from slush-pile obscurity by a Lilliput Press intern after suffering a slew of earlier rejections, Donal Ryan has enjoyed an incredible rise to literary stardom. 

The Spinning Heart ranked as one of the most sensational débuts in recent memory, his masterful 2012 depiction of post-Celtic Tiger malaise hauling in a slew of honours, including the Guardian First Book Award, the EU Prize for Literature and the Irish Book Award, as well as being short-listed for the IMPAC Award and long-listed for the Booker Prize. 

His second novel, The Thing About December, which appeared in 2013 to acclaim that was almost equally effusive, confirmed for many the author’s status as one of the most exciting and original of his generation.

Fans of these earlier books will find more of the same here.

A Slanting of the Sun gathers 20 stories, all very short, that paint word-pictures of broken — or at least severely damaged — lives. These are ordinary souls made slumped by loneliness, hard toil and an actual or emotional exile. 

Whether it is the innocence of a young traveller girl put firmly in her place in ‘Trouble’, the loom of bankruptcy and disgrace in ‘Losers Weepers’ or the refugee coping with displacement and racism in ‘Grace’, a sense of loss pervades, remnants of subtle tragedy. Sometimes the damage is a consequence of actions or decisions made, other times it is due to simple circumstance, but throughout, hope is in short supply and violence plentiful.

If the plots feel occasionally laboured, and if a few of the stories seem slight to the point of insignificant, the best of them are made remarkable by the gut-wrenching sense of place and the author’s imperious sense of rhythm and musicality when it comes to capturing the cadences of rural dialect.

The collection’s opener, ‘The Passion’, is one of the stand-out pieces, about a young man who, having served a prison stint following the death of his girlfriend in a car accident, passes largely silent but increasingly intimate night drives with the girl’s mother beside him. Other fine stories include ‘The Squad’, in which a vigilante leader organises the murder of a rapist who has ruined the life of his best friend’s daughter; ‘Long Puck’, which sees a Tipperary priest introducing the rudiments of hurling to eager locals in a Syria about to be ruptured by war; and ‘Nephthys and the Lark’, a beautifully paced and quite shocking chronicle of a happily married mother’s daily routine, hurrying to light church candles, preparing the meat and vegetables for dinner and getting in her daily walk ahead of the evening shift as a care worker looking after handicapped adults.

And in ‘The House of the Big Small Ones’, funny, poignant, and then suddenly painfully sad, perhaps the book’s best story, a man approaching old age muses on the dreams of Australia he’d given up in order to help run the pub and shop for a woman recently deserted by her husband. Stern but voluptuous and old enough to be his mother, they quickly find in one another a fulfilment of their needs, but at a dead-end cost.

It’s hard to think of a writer currently at work in this country that can match Ryan’s feel and ear for dialogue. That’s not to say that what’s on offer here is perfect, and there are philosophical asides and little pieces of word-play — eg, “He insisted I desisted” (from ‘Ragnarok’) — that feel out of synch with the characters being depicted. 

But these jarring moments are thankfully few, and can’t be allowed to take from what is, overall, a genuinely impressive first collection that follows on naturally from the triumphant novels without altering too much the winning formula.

A Slanting of the Sun

Donal Ryan

Doubleday Ireland, £12.99; Kindle, £6.02


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