book review: The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

18929253

 

 

THE SPINNING HEART by Donal Ryan
★★★★★
Doubleday Ireland, 2012

 

The Spinning Heart is just tremendously, unbelievably good.  Set in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, Donal Ryan chronicles the impact of the recession on a close-knit rural community.  With about twenty different points of view, the chapters are short, each a couple of pages long, and the novel is bookended by chapters from a married couple, Bobby and Triona.  Bobby is the novel’s central character, each of the other characters connected to his story in some way, but it’s hard to give a plot synopsis without giving anything away.  Suffice to say it opens with the brilliant lines “My father still lives back the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in.  I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down.”

Though The Spinning Heart is Ryan’s debut, this is my third novel by him, and I think it’s safe to say that it’s cemented him as one of my all-time favorites.  His prose is just top-notch, lyrical and evocative, and he has a way of capturing the distinct voice of each of his narrators while still allowing his own style to creep in – I just find it so compelling and pleasurable to read any of his books.  The plot isn’t heavy in this one, though there’s a kidnapping and a murder going on in the background, but it was still hard for me to put it down.  In fact, I’d recommend reading it in as few sittings as possible, lest you begin to forget the hundred names you’re meant to be keeping track of.  Though I’d argue that if you forget who’s who a couple of times, as long as you remember who Bobby is, the impact won’t really be lessened.  This ultimately succeeds as a portrait of a community economically depressed, and is more about the overall effect that Ryan achieves with the panoply of voices, rather than the intricacies of the characters’ lives.

Anyway, as I’m sure you can tell, I loved this. Maybe not QUITE as much as I loved All We Shall Know, but it’s close.


You can pick up a copy of The Spinning Heart here on Book Depository.

Reading Ireland Month 2020 TBR

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… Reading Ireland Month!

You can read Cathy’s post about it HERE, but basically, it’s what it says on the tin: you read Irish books throughout the month of March.  You can read exclusively Irish lit all month, or you can mix it up – I’ll probably end up doing the latter since March is when the Women’s Prize longlist gets announced, but I still want to cram in as much Irish lit as I can.

Cathy laid out a schedule which you are welcome to follow, should you so desire:

2nd – 8th March – Contemporary Irish Novels

9th – 15th March – Classic Irish Novels

16th – 22nd March – Irish Short Story Collections

23rd – 29th March – Irish Non-Fiction

Last year I themed my reading around the schedule and it worked out really well, but this year I think I’m going to do things a bit more free-form.

Before you see this massive list and panic on my behalf, I am under NO illusions that I will read all of these books in March.  This is just a selection off my shelves that I feel particularly drawn to at this moment in time.  Who knows what I’ll end up going for.

So without further ado, here are some of the books I’m thinking about picking up in March:

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
If All the World and Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton
The Dregs of the Day by Máirtín Ó Cadhain
The Cruelty Men by Emer Martin
For the Good Times by David Keenan
The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor
Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel
Being Various edited by Lucy Caldwell
The Long Gaze Back edited by Sinéad Gleeson

Honestly I think if I manage to read even 2 or 3 of these, I will be happy!  Or maybe I’ll read something else entirely, but this list is what I’m feeling drawn toward at this very moment.  So there you have it.  Have you read any of these, and what are your Reading Ireland Month plans?  Comment and let me know!

book review: Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park

36365112._sy475_

 

TRAVELLING IN A STRANGE LAND by David Park
★★★★☆
Bloomsbury, 2018 (UK)

 

This was a lovely, devastating little book.  It’s a simple story which follows Tom, a Northern Irish man making a road trip from Belfast to Sunderland to pick up his son Luke from uni for the Christmas holidays.  This reverse-Odyssey is being undertaken as weather has made road conditions terrible and all public transport has been shut down, and Luke is too sick to drive himself.

On a very surface level, David Park captures the fortitude required to drive in unsafe weather conditions in a way that hooked and compelled me instantly, but obviously this book is so much more than that.  I don’t want to give away too much as it has such a short page count, but this book delves so deep into grief and guilt that it’s a wonder Park could do it all in under 200 pages.

The only issue that cropped up for me on occasion was something that frequently bothers me with books written in the first-person; when the narrator becomes overly articulate in such a way that you can feel the author using them as a mouthpiece.  I found the writing mostly lovely and authentic, and this was only an occasional criticism, but it was enough to knock it back from 5 stars.

Still, it’s a tremendously affecting book that I’d recommend highly, especially on a snowy day.


You can pick up a copy of Travelling in a Strange Land here on Book Depository.

book review: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

20702408

 

A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING by Eimear McBride
★★★★★
Coffee House Press, 2014

Having already read Eimear McBride’s sophomore novel, The Lesser Bohemians, I thought I was prepared for A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing. And indeed, I was prepared for McBride’s signature and singular prose style, a terse, choppy sort of stream of consciousness that mimics the incompleteness of thought. It’s a difficult style to warm up to: I’ve heard that listening to this book on audio can help, but personally I tried that and as I’m not an auditory learner at all, I found it much more comprehensible in print. So I think it does depend on your personal preferences, but once you settle into the rhythm of her words, it’s not as daunting as you might expect.

“Him anxious. Not at all like. But I am happy. Satisfied that I’ve done wrong and now and now. What now? Calm sliding down into my boat and pushing out to sin. He’s on the shoreline getting small.”

What I was not prepared for was how utterly gutting this book ended up being. This has to be one of the most intense, visceral, excruciating things I have read in my life – second only to A Little Life, perhaps? Just, don’t pick this up lightly. Trigger warnings for everything. Seriously, everything.

But it’s not just brutal; it’s good. Form, style, and content all dovetail here for one of the most perceptive examinations of the psychological toll of sexual assault that I have ever read. But more than that, this book is a raw and unfiltered look at sex, isolation, terminal illness, and sibling bonds, and though it’s relentlessly internal in its construction, a commentary on growing up as a young woman in Ireland beautifully underscores the entire thing. The protagonist remains nameless, something that I often find gimmicky and unnecessary, but here it works perfectly as a constant reminder of the narrator’s fractured sense of identity as she finds herself defined by the horrifying things that happen to her and around her as a young girl. This is a hard book to recommend as it’s so impenetrable at a glance, and so harrowing once you do get into it, but I think this is a book that is going to stay with me for a long time.


You can pick up a copy of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing here on Book Depository.

book review: Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson

36508441

 

CONSTELLATIONS by Sinéad Gleeson
★★★★★
Picador Books, April 2019 (UK)

 

Constellations is the debut memoirist essay collection by noted Irish arts critic Sinéad Gleeson, and it’s a collection that appears to have been years in the making. It’s unsurprising then that the result is as masterful as it is – I inhaled this utterly marvelous book in one day and could not stop thinking about it after I finished.

Gleeson puts her own body at the front and center of these essays; she writes of hip replacements, leukemia, arthritis, and childbirth, deftly tying in her own stories with broader observations about the politicization of women’s bodies. These essays are at their best when they’re the most personal, I think, because Gleeson has the remarkable ability to express vulnerability without self-pity, but there isn’t a single essay in this collection that isn’t in its own way thought-provoking and memorable.

This is perfect for fans of Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death, though I consider Constellations to be (perhaps ironically) more thematically coherent. ‘Blue Hills and Chalk Bones’ opens the collection with a story about a school trip to France and coming to terms with her body’s limitations, a moving opening that segues into the more widely accessible ‘Hair,’ which interrogates the relationship between hair and identity. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that captures the utter senselessness and cruelty of death better than ‘Our Mutual Friend,’ far and away the collection’s standout, but even though that emotional crescendo comes early, the essays that follow continue to hold their own and deliver the occasional gut-punch while meditating on themes of illness, death, motherhood, and the interplay between art and health.

All said, this collection is essentially a reminder of the importance of bodily autonomy (which Gleeson fights for most ardently in her essay in which she reflects on Ireland’s notoriously harsh abortion policies). But despite the relentlessly heavy subject matter, this is the kind of book that you feel lighter having read, because it isn’t weighed down by the kind of hopelessness and despair that Gleeson has been fighting through ever since her first health diagnosis. As a self-proclaimed lover of all things macabre I tend to shudder at the word ‘uplifting’ so I’m trying to avoid using it, but suffice to say that this is a beautiful book that works through a number of difficult subjects to a consequential and impactful end. Read it.


You can pick up a copy of Constellations here on Book Depository.

book (play script) review: Faith Healer by Brian Friel

31309641

 

FAITH HEALER by Brian Friel
★★★★★
Faber & Faber, 2016
originally published in 1979

 

When I was reading Faith Healer, this script got two distinctions from me: (1) being one of the most depressing things I have ever read, and (2) probably being the first play I’ve encountered where I actually wondered whether or not it would work on stage as well as it does on the page. I mean, it must work, because it’s seen a number of illustrious and well-reviewed revivals over the years, but it reads comfortably like a novella, and if you are planning on seeing it on stage (in the upcoming Los Angeles production, for example) I would highly recommend familiarizing yourself with the script first, because I imagine a lot could be lost in translation to the unfamiliar viewer.

Written in four monologues, this play tells the story of faith healer Frank Hardy. Frank’s two monologues (each about ten pages long) open and close the play, and in between we also hear from Frank’s wife, or maybe his mistress, Grace, and his stage manager Teddy. Together they chronicle the downfall of Frank’s faith healing act, but less focus is given to the narrative itself than the relationship between these three characters and the way it has disintegrated over time.

This play’s magic is all in the details. If you’re reading or watching this just trying to glean the overall gist, so much is going to be lost. Friel expertly navigates three conflicting accounts of the same events; each character tells essentially the same stories, with at times heartbreaking variations. The biggest punch to the gut was after hearing Grace’s account of her newborn baby dying, and hearing how Frank fashioned a makeshift cross for the grave, we then get Teddy’s account that Frank was nowhere to be found when Grace went into labor, and how Teddy was the one to build the cross and say a prayer over the grave. The fallibility of memory is probably one of my favorite themes in literature and when it’s rendered with the same kind of subtlety as it is here, it’s hard not to be deeply affected and unsettled. The other salient theme running through this play is Frank’s unreliable gift for faith healing – with noticeable parallels to artists’ creativity, the whole play reads as an allegory. Can truth exist in a vacuum or is it always shaped by the stories we tell?

If you aren’t someone who ordinarily enjoys reading play scripts, I’d still recommend checking this out if it interests you, as again, it reads very much like a novella. Friel’s writing is sharp and lyrical and this leaves no question as to why he’s one of the most influential playwrights to come out of Northern Ireland.


You can pick up a copy of Faith Healer here on Book Depository.

book review: Young Skins by Colin Barrett

22571882

 

YOUNG SKINS by Colin Barrett
★★★★☆
Grove, 2015

 

In the vein of authors like Donal Ryan and Lisa McInerney, Colin Barrett has a gift for conjuring quiet scenes from small-town Irish life that bristle with a kind of dormant tension. Young Skins is a collection of seven short stories that all take place in the same town, and often the same pub, with a few overlapping characters, but which mostly stand on their own. Each story focuses on a male protagonist, usually young, all in some way navigating working class life, post-Ireland’s financial collapse.

It’s very rare that I give a short story collection 5 stars; it’s to be expected that in a collection like this, certain stories are going to shine and certain others are going to fade into the background. Though I loved Barrett’s prose throughout, this collection really wasn’t an exception to the rule – there are stories I loved and stories I found to be rather forgettable (though thankfully none I outright disliked).

The Clancy Kid was a strong opening, introducing us to the gritty, bleak backdrop of young love turned to heartbreak that characterizes so many of these stories, as well as the kind of violence that permeates male youth culture. Bait is a tricky one; I’d been loving it, up until the very end where it takes an… incongruously supernatural(?) turn that I still haven’t fully made sense of. (If you’ve read this story, please tell me your thoughts on the ending.)

The Moon didn’t leave much of an impression on me, though this is where Barrett states a lot of the collection’s thematic conceits rather plainly, which makes it a solid addition (a young, flighty woman says to our protagonist at one point “Galway’s not that far[,] but it might as well be the moon for people like you.”) And I thought Stand Your Skin was maybe too thematically similar to The Moon, though Stand Your Skin is the one I preferred.

Calm With Horses, the collection’s magnum opus, is more of a novella than a short story, nearing 100 pages. In my opinion this story stands head and shoulders above the rest, and it’s not just because of its length. I think this is where Barrett is able to really stretch his legs and show us what he’s capable of. Various characters and subplots weave in an out of this one and all dovetail in a satisfying, heart-rending conclusion. I really hope Barrett has a novel in the works.

Diamonds I think is solidly the weakest story that doesn’t offer much that we can’t already find elsewhere. And Kindly Forget My Existence is a fitting ending, where Barrett eschews his young protagonists in favor of two middle aged men who sit down at a pub and discuss their own youth.

So, as with most short story collections, a mixed bag, but it’s worth the price of admission for the stunningly tragic Calm With Horses alone, and the rest of the stories mostly hold their own as well. Dismal and hopeless as this collection is on the whole, there’s an assured beauty to Barrett’s prose that I found very striking, especially for a debut, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

You can pick up a copy of Young Skins here on Book Depository.