The Spinning Heart

The Spinning Heart


Why Teach 'The Spinning Heart' by Donal Ryan?

When I first read ‘The Spinning Heart’, I was gripped from the very first lines, “My father still lives back the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in. I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down.” Bobby Mahon, the novel's hero, struggles with the hate he bears towards his father, a vindictive, cruel man.

Ryan also perfectly captures the recession in Ireland and the impact it had on the lives of everyday people, bringing to life the problems and pain in this rural community.

In the aftermath of Ireland’s financial collapse, dangerous tensions surface in an Irish town. As violence flares, the characters face a battle between public persona and inner desires. Through a chorus of unique voices, each struggling to tell their own kind of truth, a single authentic tale unfolds.

Why teach 'The Spinning Heart'?

•   The novel is short – approximately 50, 000 words, and immensely readable. It is broken down into twenty-one chapters, each of which is given over to a different character. This makes it easy to target chapters/voices for re-reading and further analysis.

•   The storyline is gripping (there is both a murder and a kidnapping), and very involving. The reader has to consider who has committed the murder, forcing us to assess our view of the novel’s hero. Also, the kidnapping storyline brings tension and suspense as the fate of the kidnapped child is uncertain.

•   The overlapping stories in each chapter build up a rich, complex picture of this rural town, but also of the mood and atmosphere of the recession.

•   The direct, confessional style is arresting, each chapter feels like it is being told to the reader and no-one else. This intimate style involves the reader emotionally in the story, as we feel we know the characters personally and are invested in their lives.

The Spinning Heart Classroom Questions at Magpie Books Enniskerry - 1

General Vision and Viewpoint

The novel perfectly captures the despondence and loss of the recession. Characters are frustrated, trapped by their failed circumstances and dashed hopes. There is a great sense of how fear and uncertainty can colour people’s lives and add to their unhappiness. There is also however, a wonderful sense of the resilience and quiet goodness of these people.

Cultural Context/Social Setting

The story is set in Co. Limerick, during the recession. This modern, Irish setting makes it very accessible and relevant for students.

Literary Genre

This short novel has twenty-one chapters, each told in a different character’s voice. The confessional, personal style that each chapter is told in makes it very engaging. Plot lines about murder and kidnapping, make it rich in tension and conflict.


I always choose relationships as the theme/issue for consideration at Higher Level. Relationships in this novel, though often destructive at first, are nuanced and complex. Bobby Mahon, the novel’s protagonist, has a terribly damaging and dysfunctional relationship with his father, having suffered a lifetime of hurt because of him. However, Bobby’s relationship with his wife, Triona has a hugely positive influence on his life. There is a lot to discuss in relation to this theme in the novel, making it very suitable for the classroom.

Relationships (OL)

As above.

Hero, Heroine, Villain

Bobby is a very engaging protagonist. He is respected and admired in his community, while inwardly struggling with his feelings about his hated father, and how they have shaped him as a person.


Conflict would work well as a theme here, considering the murder and kidnapping storylines, among others. Loss , and the impact it has on characters’ lives would also be relevant.

Overall, this novel is compelling and very real. The storylines and characters are well drawn and relatable, and it is a text students should engage well with and respond to. This is an excellent choice to consider as an option for 2019 and 2020.

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