Review: the thing about December by Donal Ryan

Irish writer Donal Ryan’s Spinning Heart was one of my favorite reads a few years back so when Kenny’s of Galway sent me the thing about December I was happy to set it on my shelf for the coming winter. I pulled it down this past December and settled in for some of the soul mending, dark Irish literature that Ryan does so well.

At first Johnsey wasn’t a character I connected with and I wasn’t enjoying the book. Granted one bad thing after another happens to this guy, but he was just so “poor me” that I couldn’t find the sympathy for him that usually hooks me in Irish novels. Instead I found myself thinking, oh for heaven sakes, buck up, would you! I put it aside, but the beauty of the writing was such that I knew I didn’t want to completely give up on it.

I picked it up again mid-January and perhaps it was my frame of mind or my sudden compassion for him when his mother died, but now the tension of the narrative was driving and I couldn’t put it down.

Johnsey’s parents think him a quiet boy, the village thinks him a bit slow. His naivety and inability to grasp modern society mean he doesn’t fit in. Schoolmates taunt him, townies harass him and seedy characters take advantage.

He inherits prime farmland when his parents pass. He doesn’t understands real estate or financial matters at all and those left to watch over him have their own best interests at heart more than his. The Celtic Tiger is just starting to roar and the land is rezoned and developers come knocking at his door. It seems the whole village wants him to sell – jobs, money, a better life for all of us they cry. He doesn’t know about any of that. He just knows his IRA ancestors fought and died for this land. It’s theirs, not his, and he can’t sell it.

After a severe beating that lands Johnsey in ICU, Ryan introduces two characters who seem to be on Johnsey’s side. These aren’t necessarily good people mind you. They are sad and pathetic in their own ways. They reminded me of the main characters of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Johnsey can’t believe someone would like him and want to be his friend. He constantly worries about what to say, what to do, for fear they won’t anymore and his life will go back to being empty and lonely. Despite their flaws and the drama they bring to his life, they do give him the courage to stand up to the greedy developers and hold tight to the land he holds so dear.

But this is traditional Irish fiction, where there is rarely a happy ending. The brutal realities of life are primary and nothing gets tied up neatly. Events start to transpire rapidly, ever spiraling downward to a tragic climax. And the reader is left wondering, what happened? The “better” people of Johnsey’s world are left wondering, what have we done?

Ryan has again nailed the soul wrenchingly dark traditional Irish writing that heals the reader and this is a story worth curling up with. Strong tea and tissues optional, but recommended.

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