Fiction can often describe reality more fully than any number of newspaper articles or TV broadcasts. The Spinning Heart is about the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, told in the interconnected lives of people in a small Irish town. In 21 brief chapters, the characters take turns describing their bleak present and shattered hopes.
The local builder, Pokey Burke, has not only gone broke but suddenly fled the country. His workers, unemployed with no chance of a new job, discover that they can’t even get the dole because he never made any social welfare payments.
Pokey’s former foreman says: “I showed the little blond girl at the hatch my last pay slip. You could see clearly what was taken out: PRSI, PAYE, Income levy, pensions. She held it in front of her with her nose wrinkled up like I was after wiping my armpit with it. Well I said. Well what? What’s the story? There’s no story sir: I wasn’t on the computer as an employee of Pokey Burke or anyone else.”
A few years before, the building boom seemed like it would never end. Pokey’s father recalls “there were seven years there where you could build houses out of cardboard and masking tape and they’d be sold off the plans. People queued all night to buy boxes of houses crammed together like kennels.”
Realtin lives on one of Ireland’s famous ghost estates “There are forty-four houses on this estate. I live in number twenty-three. There’s an old lady living in number forty. There’s no one living in any of the other houses, just the ghosts of people who never existed. I’m stranded, she’s abandoned…How sad am I?”
Donal Ryan captures the complexity of real life. Brian is about to leave for Australia, saying “I haven’t worked since I finished my apprenticeship.” Brian knows he’s supposed to be “a tragic figure, a modern incarceration of the poor tenant farmer laid low by famine, cast from his smallholding by the Gombeen Man, forced to choose between the coffin ship and the grave.” Instead, he’s looking forward to the adventure. “I was only ever thinking about going to Australia because every single person I know went over there for at least a year and had unreal craic.”
The people in The Spinning Heart haven’t just lost jobs. Their initiative and identity are gone, too. Rory dreams of going to a concert with a girl he’s met in the town. “I’ll stand there until I start feeling like a dick, then I’ll get the bus back to the village and look at her number in my phone while the summer rain runs down the window and my cowardly heart settles back into the slow rhythm of time being wasted. Then I’ll delete her number.”
Triona, whose husband Bobby Mahon hasn't worked since Pokey Burke left the country, says: “The air is thick with platitudes around here. We’ll all pull together. We’re a tight knit community. We’ll all pull together. Oh really? Will we?”
But it is Triona who ends the book with hope because she still has her husband and son. “I just said oh love; oh love; what matters now?”
What matters, only love?”
The Spinning Heart is a compact gem, beautifully evocative of the people all over Ireland whom the Celtic Tiger left behind. It reminds us that behind the statistics are real people whose better days are gone, with bitterness and despair left behind. SB
The Spinning Heart
By Donal Ryan
Steerforth Press, $15