Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Thing about December by Donal Ryan

Though he was long listed for the Man Booker and won the Guardian First Book Award with The Spinning Heart, I think that Donal Ryan has created a piece of literature even more original and heart wrenching with The Thing about December.  It is at once unbearably sad and, at times, unbearably funny, so I couldn't put it down today until I finished it.   As a chronicler of modern Ireland, he is unsurpassed.   Though he wrote it before Spinning Heart, it was only published after the success of that novel.   Publishers do get it wrong - frequently.

This time, he is in Tipperary and it is in the early days of the Celtic Tiger.   His narrator is a lost soul, Johnsey, an intellectually challenged young man only too well aware of his limitations and hating them.   He refers to himself variously as a 'gom' and a 'fat eejit' and he figures God made a slip-up making him.   He wonders where there might be a way to get away from this earth cleanly, to just disappear one day and he cries, 'Hey God, you forgot to give a justification for Johnsey Cunliffe's existence, he's below scratching his hole like a fool, waiting for a reason not to do away with himself'.   He has two lovely well-liked and respected parents who early in the story die, one a short time after the other, leaving sad Johnsey alone in an unfeeling and pitiless society.

He is of course bullied mercilessly by the local yahoos and though he fantasises about girls, his fantasies are about the stars of Home and Away rather than any local ladies with whom he is totally tongue-tied and then mocked.   His happiest memories are days spent with his father on their small farm or helping his mother with her baking.   On his own, he distances himself from the town's inhabitants being canny enough to see through the often false sympathy offered him when his mother died.

The crisis starts when the local council, under pressure from the smart boys in town, decide to rezone the surrounding land including Johnsey's farm which then overnight becomes worth millions.   Ryan handles with great style his depiction of the approaches made to Johnsey, the sudden friends he acquires and Johnsey's delight in them while all the time giving us a feeling of impending tragedy - which may or may not happen.   Ryan builds up Johnsey's character with perspicacity and great skill.  He has a certain shrewdness and native cunning but is unable to articulate his thoughts. He laments his own inability to manage words, that he 'could barely get a sentence out without his face going on fire and his brain downing tools'.   At the same time, he thinks a thought worthy of Rumsfeld, 'what's a lie anyway?   Do you have to know a thing to be not true, or just not care whether or not it's true for the saying of it to be a lie, or are you telling lies if what you say is not true but you think it is?'

Ryan breaks the book up into twelve chapters - the months of the year - and he starts each chapter/month with Johnsey remembering something of his mother or father in that particular month - until December and there is a thing about December.   Ryan has a lovely easy style of writing with a keen eye and even keener ear. He captures deliciously local phrases and accents:  one can actually hear the inhabitants talking!   One could quote endlessly from his writing but I would prefer you to read it for yourselves!

The Thing about December is published by Doubleday Ireland, pb £12.99 [€10.87]

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