The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
The Spinning Heart, Irish author Donal Ryan’s debut novel from 2012, was rejected approximately 47 times before being picked up for a publishing deal. Having read the finished product, it’s not hard to see why.
That’s not to say the novel is a poor outing. It is, however, saddled with an unorthodox narrative structure that a mainstream publisher might consider gutsy for an established veteran, much less a newcomer. The results are mixed.
While the novel succeeds as an engrossing story about authentic characters, the narrative structure fails to ever dissolve into the heart of the novel in any consistent manner. The inconsistency floats on the surface of the story in little bits and pieces, distracting the reader and detracting from many of its strongest points.
The Spinning Perspective
Ryan’s novel traces the effects of the Irish financial collapse within the microcosm of a single town. There’s a vast ensemble of characters in the mix, but the story’s central crux is Bobby Mahon, a highly respected local contractor, and Pokey Burke, the unscrupulous owner of the construction firm Bobby works for. Both men’s associates and relations are the spokes on which the wheel of the story turns.
It’s here that the structural faults become apparent. Rather than anchor the perspective to Bobby, Pokey, or a combination of the two, Ryan instead uses each chapter in the novel to switch to the perspective of a new character, all of them tied to either man in some way, some more tangential than others. No one’s voice is given more than one chapter. While the plot’s keystone remains the same throughout—the fallout from an incomplete townhome complex worked on by Bobby’s team and summarily abandoned by Pokey—the reader is left to sort out which developments, if any, have occurred via context clues mentioned in each character’s borderline-stream-of-consciousness rambling.
The concept isn’t without merits. It’s a testament to Ryan’s technical abilities as a storyteller that he’s able to keep the story moving forward with the absence of any narrative anchors. Every chapter of The Spinning Heart is an introduction to a wholly new personality, and time moves forward in between each. In adopting this approach the author evokes a semblance of a Chinese whisper effect. Each resident brings a distinct viewpoint on events as they play out, which goes a long way in terms of establishing the town itself as a character, an effect many literary writers strive for but only few achieve to satisfaction.
That which isn’t an essential ends up a distraction. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but in the case of The Spinning Heart the spinning of the perspectives tends to yank the reader away from subplots and characters in whom he’s invested.
While many of the one-off perspectives are interesting simply as brief character portraits, several don’t come up to snuff and become a chore to plow through. Worse, though, is the fact that even in the most captivating of these portraits, at no point does this kaleidoscopic style feel essential or integral to the fabric of the story Ryan set out to tell.
Which character elements, worldbuilding/atmospheric elements or themes are being furthered by this frantic series of perspective changes? This reader came away unconvinced that the story couldn’t have been told just as well, if not much better, with Bobby, Pokey or a combination of the two as a recurring perspective.
Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra, my favorite novel of the ‘00s, takes this approach. In it the reader is buffeted between two perspectives, that of Sikh detective Sartaj Singh and Mumbai crime lord Ganesh Gaitonde, whom Sartaj is out to bag at the story’s beginning. In between these two competing voices are one-off interludes from others, characters whose importance to the central plot sometimes isn’t readily obvious until their chapter’s conclusion. While these shifts away from the center of the action are jarring, the payoff is always worth it, owing to Chandra’s uncanny ability to tie each one back to the central story.
The Spinning Heart could just as easily have been structured in a similar style and lost little in translation. Bobby Mahon alone is intriguing enough a character to maintain a full-length first-person narrative. To base so much of the story’s soul in the internal tribulations Bobby faces in tandem with the realities of the crash was a gamble considering the novel’s unusual style. It’s unfortunate that the gamble doesn’t pay off; at best, Ryan broke even.
That said, the novel’s heart—its central characters—is pure. Ryan has a knack for establishing endearing yet authentic characters which many writers take years to develop, if ever. I’m eager to see what this author is going to pull off in the future with a clearer, more focused perspective.