WHEN Donal Ryan’s debut novel landed a few years ago as the post-crash country was clambering around in the dust listening to pundits rabbiting on about our future, the visceral quality of The Spinning Heart was a beacon illuminating our malaise. It was rightly feted and devoured by readers.
One question that cropped up was whether Ryan would be able to match such a performance. Of course, that was not a problem as evidenced by what followed, and now the phenomenally gifted Nenagh, Co Tipperary, man has come up with a truly brilliant book, just out in paperback.
Pick up a copy of the book off the shelf of your local bookshop or library and read the sentence that starts on the middle of page 21 with the words, “Do you, Melody, take this man, to have and to hold…?”
Punchy and all as Ryan’s fluent style is, this particular sentence runs to a page but it documents a marriage, compresses, parses and analyses, spits fire and finishes only when it is good and ready having properly read and spelt the marriage for the bitter disappointment it was. The sentence is a blow to the solar plexus. It’s unlikely you’ll need more proof of the book’s bitingly brilliant quality.
It is tough stuff but not without some well-earned moments of sheer tenderness.
Melody Shee is a 33-year-old teacher who is drawn to the mystery and mayhem of Traveller culture as she perceives it around her. She has split up from her husband and childhood sweetheart after her discovery that he has been visiting prostitutes in Dublin. Melody is no sexual innocent herself and seduces a 17-year-old Traveller, to whom she is teaching literacy, and gets pregnant by him.
The pregnancy frames the book and gives it its structure.
Ryan catches the voices of his several characters to a tee. No bother to him to present the young woman going through pregnancy.
Melody intimates that she once betrayed a school friend who took her own life. When the precise detail of this betrayal is revealed it is harrowing and awful to read.
However, we never give up on Melody even though Ryan steadily opens her up with all of her tainted beauty in an artful and thoroughgoing exposition of her character. As she says, “I don’t know why I’m the way I am, or even why I am. I can’t see purpose to myself, nor could I ever.”
Her father is a lovely guy, a widower who loves his daughter and is lifted by her every visit, despite the wreckage travelling in tow with her. His utterances have a simplicity and eloquence whether he is talking about wetting tea or the way things are.
Even Pat, the husband who went with prostitutes is drawn with profound sympathy. He is cut from the same cloth as Melody’s father. Before things went wrong the two men had great time for each other on the sideline at a hurling match.
When Ryan uses his rich palate of vernacular to talk as Martin Toppy, the teenaged Traveller, the book goes into an even higher register.
All of these are deeply satisfying reading pleasures before mentioning the greatest of them all, the character of the bold and bountiful Mary Crothery the young Traveller, full off sass, quiet mystery and intricate traveller vernacular.
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