THIS PIECE IS A LITERARY ANALYSIS ESSAY AND DOES NOT ADHERE TO JOURNALISTIC STANDARDS.
The present essay aims to analyse the polyphonic style and narrative choice of Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart for reporting the story of Irish recession and its influence on rural Ireland. The analysis will use excerpts from the primary text to elaborate on the impact of Ryan’s narrative choice on his readers and in studying rural Ireland’s culture and post-recession identity crisis.
The Spinning Heart is an amalgamation of 21 monologues delivered by the inhabitants of an unnamed small town in Ireland who happen to be the victims of the country’s financial collapse. In his book, Problems of Dostoevsky Poetics, Russian philosopher and literary critic, Mikhail Bakhtin defines polyphony as ‘the plurality of independent and unmerged voices’. Bakhtin praises the style due to its portrayal of an ‘objective world’ in which characters share ‘equal consciousness’. Donal Ryan creates such world in The Spinning Heart while garnering those ‘independent and unmerged voices’ under the umbrella of a collective trauma (economic downturn). The polyphonic discourse allows the expression of entirely different intentions and thoughts. For example, readers observe the impact of the economic crash on Vasya, an undocumented immigrant from Russia who represents a group whose life under the recession was not widely covered. Bakhtin insisted that each person’s experience is ‘unique and irreplaceable’. In Ryan’s novel, each perspective bears a certain amount of weight and validity. Another function of polyphony is turning characters and types into personalities by granting them freedom and independence from others’ perspectives and their environment. In The Spinning Heart, Ryan rescues Bobby Mahon’s father from becoming a stereotyped villain by granting him an independent voice even if it is after his demise. Ryan’s ‘personalities’ speak their truth and contradict each other’s narratives to reflect the inconsistent, bewildered state of rural Ireland after the recession. Bakhtin believed Dostoevsky used polyphony to depict the ‘contradictory multileveledness of his time’.
Further, the absence of dialogue reveals the sense of isolation that the town’s inhabitants feel, or what Maeve Mulrennan describes as ‘the powerlessness of a community’: the disillusionment that realising the disappearance of the glorious Celtic Tiger years brought about. In 2012, many young Irish men and women left the country for Australia and London as the financial crash destroyed the sense of loyalty to land (an important element in Irish culture) and formed a national identity crisis. In Ryan’s book, the imminent immigration of young people is highlighted in Brian’s monologue. While still in Ireland Brian fantasises about work, money and beautiful women waiting for him in Australia. As Mulrennan notes, after Ryan’s book a series of ‘institutional crises’ regarding the Catholic Church traumatised Irish identity even further. In The Spinning Heart, the recession is like an erupted volcano that has brought to head the internalised complexes, confusions and frustrations of rural people. As Chris O’Rourke writes, “The recession informs so much of his [Ryan] fractured tale that it’s questionable if it could survive with the same intensity without it.” Bobby feels even more useless now that his boss and local developer Pokey Burke, has fled the country and left him to take care of his broke and helpless employees. Pokey’s father Josie feels extremely ashamed of Bobby and others; he finds the new trauma hard to manage as he is already overwhelmed by internalised feelings of guilt regarding his children. Brian uses the financial downturn as an excuse to flee a town in which he grew up watching Bobby with envy. The recession is also taking a toll on Réaltín’s comparatively healthy relationship with her father. The essay now moves on to discuss the impact of Ryan’s choice of narration on examining rural Irish culture.
In an interview with the University of Limerick’s Regional Writing Centre, Ryan described himself as a ‘labour inspector’ rather than a writer and The Spinning Heart shows his careful examination of his compatriots’ behaviours. In monologues delivered by the male characters of the book, readers recognise Irish men as insecure and nervous of others’ judgements. Bobby is full of self-doubt despite the fact that others consider him to be the community’s golden boy. Bobby’s insecurity stems from growing up with a father who managed to convince him of his unworthiness; thus he envisions the old man’s murder – a bold initiative he doubts would win him his approval. “He’d still be telling me I’m only a useless prick.” His father’s ghost later opens up about his childhood and a father who mercilessly beat him revealing how both men were victims of a culture in which sons inherit their fathers’ demons. Bobby is very cautious of talking about his feelings as the dominant rural culture deems it a feminine quality. He is not only petrified of discussing his sentiments with his wife but avoids anything that questions his manhood. “Imagine if being found out that you went out to see a play, on your own! With a woman, you have an excuse for every kind of soft thing.” That is partially due to the homophobic culture of small Irish towns where boys must play GAA and abstain from displaying their emotions to flaunt their heterosexuality. In her study, A Matter of Life and Death: Men, Masculinities and Staying ‘Behind’ in Rural Ireland, Caitríona Ní Laoire suggests struggles for power and masculine identity play a key role in the growing rate of suicide among rural Irish men. In The Spinning Heart, Josie is so ashamed of his daughter’s homosexuality that does not even acknowledge the fact. There is no hint of his daughter’s sexual inclination in his monologue. Similarly, Brian’s father decides to disregard the fact that his son is spending his last days in Ireland. In Brian Friel’s Faith Healer (an Irish polyphonic play) Frank Hardy never discusses his wife’s miscarriages or the birth of his stillborn child. Irish men ignore the harsh truth and block painful memories instead of coming to terms with them. Identity crisis is also sensed in almost everyone’s speech. Josie’s daughter Mags copes with his father’s denial of her identity (sexuality) by blaming the religious, homophobic rural culture: “People’s thoughts, when their upbringing is mired in dogma, aren’t their own.” Rural culture of ostracising minority groups is highlighted in Lily and Vasya’s monologues. In Lily’s chapter, it is revealed to readers that besides Bobby (and his late mother) nobody goes near the former sex worker including her children. She is labelled and stigmatised as the local ‘wanton’. Vasya is treated with the similar prejudice as he is an outsider in a small Irish-majority community in which migration is still a unique phenomenon. He is nameless to town’s people, putting him in the midst of an identity crisis he endeavours to dismiss as normal. “I’m called the Russian here as almost everyone is from other countries.” The Spinning Heart depicts many more examples of cultural anomalies including sexism, racism and lack of education around mental illness (Trevor) highlighted in various monologues. The monologues, in the end, unite to form a clear image of Ryan’s unnamed small village and its residents’ characteristics and struggles under the economic downturn.
Donal Ryan utilised polyphonic storytelling to allow his readers to critically analyse rural Irish culture by studying various perspectives on life including those of a foreigner, a child and a mentally ill individual. The Spinning Heart employs recession to demonstrate how cultural poverty combined with a national disaster further complicated the lives of people in small Irish towns whose spinning hearts were already too wounded to handle an external crisis.
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