Donal Ryan's first novel, The Spinning Heart, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the 2012 Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. Not a bad start to a literary career, the only downside being that he inadvertently set himself a tough challenge to live up to with that tricky second novel. That he has done so, and with aplomb, is testament to this brightest of new writing talents.
The story follows a year in the life of Johnsey Cunliffe, a childlike 24-year-old Irish man with an excruciating lack of self-confidence that is either the result of an unspecified mental incapacity or over-protective parenting or both.
Johnsey has inherited the family farm from his deceased parents, and that's where he lives, cowering from the world, unable to talk to people without twisting himself up in knots. But he can't hide away for ever. The farm is sitting on a plot of land that local developers want to get their hands on. People, who once looked out for him, now see him as a barrier to what they think will be a windfall for them all if he sells up. The atmosphere turns nasty, Johnsey is badly beaten up and despite the support of two friends he makes while recovering in hospital, events force him into an increasingly tight corner.
Ryan's urgent, poetic prose captures the internal distress of his main character with forensic intensity: "What had Johnsey? A big thick head into which travelled only black thoughts of how much he hated being here on this earth alone." Ryan builds on this feeling, passage by passage, creating an emotional dam within Johnsey that has to give way. How and when it will happen creates the tension that drives the narrative.
There is some light in the darkness. With deft changes of atmosphere, Ryan offers the reader tantalising hope for Johnsey through the relationship with his hospital friends, and hints at happier times through his evocative memories of farming with his dad, his mum's home cooking, of eating the warm bread at the local bakery.
The relief is short-lived: it's soon clear these refer to an Ireland that no longer exists. Rural life is changing: heads have been turned by the wealth the Celtic Tiger economy seems to promise and avarice is tearing down the old decent values that kept the village together.
There is no longer a place for the naive, the gentle, the old values; they are being trampled underfoot by greed masquerading as progress — as Johnsey, the embodiment of this former time, finally understands.
Ryan has risen to the challenge of his second novel admirably. Recommended.