Some months ago I started reading the book ‘The thing about December’ by Donal Ryan. I put it to one side in the run-up to, the duration and aftermath of the theatre festival. On my recent weekend in Lisbon it accompanied me.
Ryan published ‘The Spinning Heart’ in 2012. It was a story told by twenty one characters about life in a village in Tipperary after the Celtic Tiger had crashed and burned. These were the survivors of an economic devastation. I have not read the book, but I saw the theatrical adaptation in the Smock Alley Theatre earlier this year.
‘The thing about December’ was written before, but published after ‘The Spinning Heart’. Set in the same village, it concerns one character Johnsey Cunliffe. It is set in 2001 just as the economic boom, built on the house of cards was accelerating. Johnsey is a damaged individual in his early 20s living on his parents’ farm and working in the Co-op in the village. When his father and mother die within a short span of time, Johnsey is left to navigate the world on his own.
Having lived a very protected life he is plagued by self-doubt. He is ill equipped to deal with the world. It’s not that he is suffering from a mental disability as such, but his emotional and psychological development has been severely stunted by his parents’ overprotection of him, that fact that he has been bullied and his inability to face the world as an adult.
Told over the space of a year, it is broken down into monthly instalments.
Shortly after his mother’s unexpected death, Johnsey is brutally assaulted by his childhood bully Eugene Penrose. Recovering in hospital he meets Mouthy Dave – a repellently boastful man whose vainglorious claims are not matched by the reality of his pathetic life. Johnsey and Dave meet the nurse Siobhan who for unexplained (but suspect) reasons gives Johnsey his first sexual experience.
As the property bubble is beginning to inflate, the recently orphaned Johnsey has become a man of means – sitting on land that is prime for development. His seemingly well-meaning neighbours start circling. They offer sympathy at his bereavement but their motivation is greed and opportunism. What can they gain from this simpleton? Sure isn’t he sitting on land worth millions? What can they extort from him, while pretending to care for him in his hour of need?
Only Dave and Siobhan seem to offer real friendship. Are they to be trusted though?
‘The thing about December’ is a brilliant book. Written in the local vernacular of county Tipperary – my part of the world – I know these words. And I know these people. it is a heartbreakingly sad tale of an inadequate man, unable to cope with the world. It is also a very bleak look at the avarice and malice of seemingly good people; and how the Celtic Tiger highlighted how cruel and monstrous people became. I read the book with clenched fists. I wanted Johnsey to succeed but the sense of dread and doom I felt for him wouldn’t dissipate.
How his tale resolves itself is for you to find out.
Read this book – highly recommended.