The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

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ISBN: 978-1-781-62007-6

ISBN: 978-1-781-62007-6

Donal Ryan burst onto the Irish literary scene last year helped in no small part by his novel The Spinning Heart being nominated for the 2013 Booker prize. The Spinning Heart paints a picture of post boom time Ireland and features some of the most bewitching prose I’ve come across in a while.

The backbone of the story centres on the fall of local hero Bobby Mahon. Bobby is a former football star who worked as a building site foreman during the times of economic prosperity. Despite being adored by his fellow towns people Bobby is a self-effacing, hardworking man who does not like too much of a fuss being made about him.

Things begin to unravel for Bobby when his boss, the quintessential Irish boom time property developer, ‘Pokey Burke’ skips town to avoid paying debts.  Pokey leaves a half-finished housing development or “ghost estate” and a crew of disgruntled builders in his wake.

On top of all this Bobby also has to shoulder the burden of his spiteful father, an undying man who seems to be sustained by hate. His father, jealous of Bobby’s relationship with his now deceased mother, was a man who; “sat silently swallowing her claim to a life…drunk he was leering and silent and mostly asleep. Sober, he was watcher, a horror of a man who missed nothing and commented on everything. Nothing was ever done right or cooked right or said right or bought right or handed to him properly or ironed straight or finished off fully with him. We couldn’t breathe right in a room with him.

Matters go from bad to worse when it transpires that the greasy Mr.Burke has neglected to pay social security on behalf of his employees meaning they are not entitled to redundancy payments or unemployment assistance. Bobby, decent man that he is, feels responsible for this situation despite being unaware of Burke’s machinations.

Amid the aftermath of Pokey’s flight a murder happens in which Bobby is implicated and the consequences reverberate throughout the town. The story is related to us from the vantage point of the various townspeople, twenty-one in total, their fragments revealing the broader story to the reader.

Ryan successfully finds distinctive voices for each member of his literary symphony, each possessing their own idiosyncrasies, and back stories which could stand alone as short stories. The only shortcoming in the novel lies in one of these characters narrative trajectories which features an ill-conceived child kidnap sub plot which fails to convince.

This lapse is forgivable in light of Ryan’s prose and highly memorable turn of phrase. The local gossips are referred to as “The Teapot Taliban,” whose aged veins run with “pill thinned blood”. I will restrain myself from quoting any more as once one begins quoting a writer of Ryan’s quality it’s hard to know when to stop.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with a love of literary fiction or an interest in seeing a snapshot of modern rural Ireland. The Spinning Heart was one of the most enjoyable pieces of fiction I read in 2013.I hope to have a review of Ryan’s second published novel The Thing About December posted by early next week.

Hello and Goodbye by Patrick Mc Cabe

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isbn-978-1-78206-014-7

isbn-978-1-78206-014-7

Hello Mr.Bones and Goodbye Mr.Rat are a pair of spine tingling tales which constitute Patrick Mc Cabe’s latest release Hello and Goodbye. Both tales feature dead protagonists recounting their last days and beyond. As is befitting characters created by a writer who revels in unreliable narrators we are unsure whether the stories told are confessional revelations, self-serving lies or perhaps a bit of both.

Hello Mr.Bones tells the story of Mr.Valentine Shannon a former, somewhat disgraced, Irish Christian brother now living in England with his partner Chris and her disabled son Faisal.  Having found happiness in his new relationship and teaching job it seems that Mr.Shannon is about to find some measure of peace in his new life.

Or at least it would were his story not related to us by deceased and demonic Anglo-Irish Dandy, Balthazar Bohan. Balthazar, having to his mind taken the young Valentine under his wing, is filled with indignation about the aftermath of their ‘friendship’. When certain allegations about Mr.Bohan’s imprurient interest in young Valentine and what occurs during his screenings of Betty Boop cartoons in his projector room emerge, the stage is set for Mr.Bohan’s downfall. Swearing revenge with his last breath, Mr.Bohan proves to be a man of his word.

Mr.Bohan’s machinations against Valentine culminate on the sixteenth of October 1987, the day when a Hurricane struck England despite the assurances of Micheal Fish, the famous British weatherman. Mc Cabe is an expert at weaving pop cultural tropes into his narratives in unsettling ways using them to create an atmosphere of uncanny horror. Betty Boop, Micheal Fish and a jingle from an old toothpaste advert to name just a few pop cultural touchstones referenced in this story, are used to chilling effect. A demonic clown called Mr.Bonio who has designs on Faisal adds to the creepiness especially for all those coulrophobics out there.

In Goodbye Mr.Rat, IRA man Gabriel King recounts his story for us from the confines of the urn where he currently resides. Gabriel is escorted by his friend, talented playwright Beni Banikin, back to his homeland from America to fulfil his dying wish of having his ashes spread there. Beni, a woman who has known trouble herself, believes Gabriel is a hero, a hunger striker who defected from the IRA in disgust at a particular incident in the village Altnavogue, where a bomb was placed in a baby’s cot.

Is Gabriel the principled freedom fighter he claims to be or could he be an eloquent thug duping an impressionable American with his stories of unsullied heroism and his sentimental self-justifying nationalism? When Beni arrives in Gabriel’s home town and meets the locals, including former IRA man turned Mayor, Mr.‘Dog’ White , her hero’s stories begin to unravel and tragedy becomes inevitable.

Both stories feature little in the way of the explicit anatomically detailed violence found in much modern horror. The horror instead is psychological and resides in gradual revelation and atmosphere. These gothic style stories create a genuine unease and offer no tidy reassuring resolutions. In fact the ending of Hello Mr.Bones foreshadows further horrific acts rather than cathartic overcoming of opposition.

These stories get under your skin to make you shiver. The horror resides just below the surface. Horrific acts of abuse are cloaked in colloquialisms and evasions by the self-serving narrators.  For me this is the most effective way of creating dread in a reader. When things are seen in the plain light of day they become banal and ineffective, too determined, whereas real horror resides in uncertain anticipation.  I found both stories to be excellent examples of modern Irish Gothic and would recommend Hello and Goodbye, to anyone who is looking to spend an evening or two breaking out in goosebumps.