I seem to be spending reading time across the water this week, more by accident than design it has to be said. After Michèle Forbes’ Belfast-set Ghost Moth earlier in the week Donal Ryan’s second novel, The Thing About December, took me south of the border to rural Ireland, my expectations ratcheted up by the ecstatic reception given to his debut, The Spinning Heart, which I managed to miss. It’s about Johnsey, a simple young man, painfully self-conscious and soft-hearted, the target of local bully boys.
Beginning four months after his father’s death, the novel follows a year in Johnsey’s life, a year marked by further loss, a terrible beating and a misrepresentation which makes him the butt of resentment and disgust. His mother is still grief-stricken, hardly able to get the supper on the table, and Johnsey doesn’t know what to do, but worse is yet to come. When his mother dies he’s faced with loneliness so terrible that the beating which lands him in hospital for a month where he meets nurse Lovely Voice and Mumbly Dave, comes to seem like a blessing. Once discharged, he finds the village seething with schemes for a grand land development, all agog to hear his own plans for selling the family farm and none too sympathetic to any ideas of loyalty which make him reluctant to do so thus getting in their way.
Ryan’s colloquial style takes some getting used to and Johnsey’s head isn’t the most comfortable place to be but once you have your reading ears attuned his brogue sings out from the page, often edged with a dark humour and full of vivid images: two fellow ‘goms’ stand next to the ‘cool lads’ like ‘bits of auld watery broccoli beside a plate of steak and chips’; gossips gloat over a tragedy ‘like crows picking at a flungaway snack box’. He’s a tragicomic, endearing character occasionally irritating in his constant self-deprecation. By viewing the world through the eyes of a simple, unworldly man Ryan takes a swipe at the greed which raged through the Celtic Tiger years of Ireland’s apparently burgeoning economy which, as we all know, ended in a bucketful of tears, throwing into stark contrast the feverish money-grabbing of even the more sympathetic characters. It’s a novel which didn’t quite meet my expectations but they were sky-high, something about which litlove at Tales from the Reading Room has a theory: if you expect a lot from a book and are disappointed, your disappointment will be greater than if your expectations were low. Equally, if your expectations were low but the book was good, your enjoyment is greater. I hope I’ve paraphrased that correctly. Pretty convincing, I think – how about you?