Last year I read Donal Ryan’s novel “The Thing About December.” I was drawn in by the powerfully distinctive voice he’d created for the central character who is a sensitive loner. Some authors like Richard Ford or Anita Brookner are able to establish an engaging narrative voice which they repeat throughout multiple books and, while it may be consistently impressive, it doesn’t show much variation. I wondered if that would be the case with Ryan so I was somewhat hesitant to start this book of short stories. I was delighted to discover a rich array of characters throughout the many stories in this collection whose voices are all individually distinct. These characters range in age, class, sex and race to create a dynamic and layered portrayal of Irish life. It’s impressive that each story finds its own rhythm to relate a particular character’s point of view. We see the world through each character’s eyes as they see it. Brought together, the engaging voices in “A Slanting of the Sun” give a rich understanding of the world, tell a series of dramatically entertaining stories and honour the diversity of individual experience.
Since almost all of these stories are set in Ireland one of the most fascinating things about this collection is the sense of ebb and flow it portrays amongst the national population. There are characters with strong roots in Ireland who face the tough decision of whether to leave for London or Australia to seek out employment and a new life. Conversely, the story ‘Grace’ gives voice to a woman who left the Democratic Republic of the Congo under terrifying circumstances to find unofficial factory work and face a different kind of fear when riding the bus in Ireland. The story ‘Trouble’ portrays how certain groups of the population like Irish travellers face longstanding oppression and social stigma. Other stories like ‘Hanora Ryan, 1998’ show characters who live in the country as if time has stood still. In this story a woman recalls a man she admired and lost in WWI as if it were yesterday even though more than eighty years have passed.
Many of the impassioned voices which narrate these stories seem to start in mid-flow so it’s only till you get through half their tale that you are able to sufficiently orientate yourself to the situation. I particularly enjoyed it when these stories made my sympathy unexpectedly switch away from the character narrating it once I grasped their full story. In ‘The Squad’ the narrator and his friends take the law into their own hands and find they must live with the consequences forever more. This movingly shows the useless life-destroying circular nature of violence: “All of naught, to naught, for naught, year upon year of moments, of time slowly marked, of silence filled with empty words.” The scale of injustices and crimes committed by protagonists vary from small instances of betrayal and theft like in ‘Losers Weepers’ to outrageous institutional abuse in ‘Nephthys and The Lark’ to horrific murder in ‘Retirement Do.’ These stories draw the reader in to really see the internal struggles of these difficult individuals giving you a more complicated understanding of situations which you might see more simplistically from a distanced outsiders’ perspective.
While I appreciated all of the stories in this collection, there are some which stand out as personal favourites. These stories in particular are impressive for the way they give a sense of the enormity of the universe and the place that particular life experiences have within it. The story ‘Sky’ is narrated by an aging, lonely man named William who is irreligious but doesn’t see the harm in sending his prayers up to the sky. He gets a computer in the hope of finding the nephew he lost touch with, but stuffs it in a closet and looks to the stars instead. ‘Ragnarok’ features a fairly average office worker who finds himself suddenly overwhelmed by emotion. In ‘Physiotherapy’ a woman recalls her life, the choices she made and creates a uniquely complex view of existence. This story also shows a breathtaking vision of how memory can make time into a fluid thing so all experience occurs simultaneously: “I’m seventy-seven and I’m twenty, my child is dead and he hasn’t yet been born.” The title story ‘A Slanting of the Sun’ shows a tremendously surprising instance of forgiveness and sense of kinship for someone who committed a horrendous crime. It’s also the story which closes this book and allows it to end with a hard-won, uplifting sensation.
I was struck many times throughout this book of short stories by the astounding beauty of certain sentences. It’s so accomplished how Donal Ryan can write from the points of view of characters with very different experiences and ways of speaking, but always draws upon language and phrasing which accurately pinpoints a subtly of feeling and pays tribute to the full complexity of human emotion. He can perfectly encapsulate a common feeling like the importance phones play in young people’s lives: “Her daughter’s world seemed compressed sometimes into the screen of that telephone; all of her tides turned at the pull of its gravity, her whole existence seemed wedded to it.” Or he can present a contradiction so that the character’s reasoning reflects his particular emotional state: “Cursed we are with health, my family, stout unfailing hearts, years to go till death for me.” All of it sings with a life-force which is enthralling and demands to be listened to.