The irish writer Donal Ryan is among the great contemporary chroniclers of grief, loss and bewilderment. His first novel, The Spinning Heart, tells the story, through 21 discrete first-person narratives, of a rural Irish community that has been shattered by the impact of recession, its inhabitants robbed of their futures, their aspirations, their lives. His second novel, The Thing About December, is similarly concerned with deprivation and incomprehension, only here those themes are explored in a third-person account of one man.
Both of these works are of clear relevance to A Slanting of the Sun, Ryan’s first collection of short stories: these are tales in which characters are nearly always attempting to make sense of bereavement and disaster, of a world apparently without reason, of the inscrutable workings of time, of the impermanence of all things. Yet the way in which Ryan approaches these themes in his latest work aligns most neatly with that taken in The Spinning Heart: we have in A Slanting of the Sun a volume that is concerned almost exclusively with voices (of the 20 stories here on offer, only one is written in the third person). Often those voices are brought to life with precision, resonance and particularity of cadence.
In “The Passion”, in which we encounter the reflections of a man who accidentally killed a girl and subsequently formed a relationship with her mother, the tone is spare, rambling, uncertain, a distillation of the narrator’s inability to make sense of an unpatterned world.
In “Tommy and Moon”, a young writer talks of the loss of his 80-year-old friend (who once rescued a dying hawk) in sentences that are carefully modulated, sombre, shining, like the “saving beauties of the world” that are the story’s theme.
And in “Physiotherapy”, in which a woman in a care-home reminisces about a past affair, about the death of her son, we are addressed in a voice that is calibrated to evoke a consciousness that is saying goodbye to the world, and in which have coalesced the years of an entire life: “I’m seventy-seven and I’m twenty, my child is dead and he hasn’t yet been born . . . my heart is slowing and my mind is quickening.”
The best of Ryan’s stories are full of such careful writing, and his register is more various than I have suggested: the reader will also find in these pages modes of speech that are hectic and violent. Yet despite these qualities, there is something curiously weightless and unmemorable about the book as a whole. Too many of the tales feel perfunctory and unfinished, more like exercises than works of carefully crafted short fiction, and this feeling is generated most powerfully by their structural deficiencies: when a narrative of Ryan’s is not crudely over-patterned, it is usually negligently formless.
Such carelessness dilutes the potency of the few works that have been sedulously crafted, and leaves the reader with a sense of frustration. A Slanting of the Sun does provide evidence of a promising short-story writer; but as a volume of work it feels as diminished and as lost as the lives it sets out to chronicle.
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