‘The Spinning Heart’ by Donal Ryan (2012) – 156 pages
In times of extreme economic downturn, the lives and attitudes of the people regress to an earlier more brutal stage. Witness the severe George W. Bush recession in the United States and the subsequent rise of the Tea Party. Some aspiring dictators have even deliberately destroyed their countries’ economies in order to make their people more subservient and to ensure there are plenty of unemployed young men available for military service.
The evidence in ‘The Spinning Heart’ indicates that with their economic downturn, the lives of the people of Ireland have returned to the Dark Ages, not only economically but also socially. It starts with the workmen discovering that their foreman, Pokey Burke, has absconded with all their pension and Social Security money and also leaving them without a job. They were taken for fools, and they react violently.
“Auld Mickey Briars lamped Timmy Hanrahan twice across both sides of his innocent head before we subdued him.”
I doubt if there is a Pokey Burke in every small town in Ireland who stole all the people’s money. There are larger economic forces, more sinister villains, at work at a national or global level. It is just easier to blame all the problems on one of your own.
‘The Spinning Heart’ is divided into twenty-one chapters, each told by a different person from a village in western Ireland. We get the same story from numerous different angles. There are so many points of view that the story is not entirely coherent; the novel is more like a chorus, an Irish chorus, of voices.
Life goes on even without a job. Some of the young guys are headed off to Australia, some to England. Some of them stay, their heads filled with bitterness and resentment. Their talk turns to girls, and who is ‘tapping’ who. There is little talk of birth control here, and the only mention is when a young woman stops using it without telling her boyfriend. Usually the men here don’t care. Generally the women in this novel are happy to have his baby even if their man is long gone. I did not say this novel is realistic; supposedly these are the old Irish ways. It gives the villagers something to gossip about.
‘The Spinning Heart’ is quite mean-spirited about everyone except its hero, Bobby Mahon. This may be just because of the whole chorus of voices who are only repeating gossip and hear-say. It also may be the result of the downshift in people’s lives caused by the bad times; the need to blame someone. There is a lot of lashing out here.
I suppose ‘The Spinning Heart’ may be an accurate picture of village life in western Ireland today. It is not a pretty picture.