A.M. Dolan reflects on The Thing About December, Irish author Donal Ryan’s second novel.
Set against the backdrop of a rural village somewhere in Celtic Tiger Ireland, The Thing About December puts the spotlight on Johnsey Cunliffe, one of the most vulnerable members of that community. Johnsey isn’t like the rest of the village. He prefers to stay in watching telly with his beloved mother and father on Friday nights. He has trouble talking, and doesn’t have friends to speak of. Eugene Penrose and his pals bully him to the point that he dreads the daily walk home from his job in the co-op, a job his boss tells him he only has “out of respect for his father”.
Ryan puts in beautiful black and white all of the things Johnsey cannot say out loud.
There comes a time when Johnsey has to learn to live on his own. The bullying comes to a head when he lands in hospital, a spell that turns out to be a sweet relief from the loneliness he faces. Here, he is away from his life “full of empty spaces”, and from the locals who are trying to steamroll him into selling land he feels is not his to sell. For Johnsey, who “never drove a car past the gate”, a decision like this is all but impossible to make, when all he wants is the familiarity of his past. The hospital is also the place new friends “lovely voice” Siobhan and Mumbly Dave come into his life , raising the question of who he can trust in a world where all but a handful of people seem to resent him.
it is subtly made clear that the bully of the village is as much a product of circumstance as Johnsey is.
The twelve chapters in The Thing About December are pleasingly structured to each represent a month of the year, beginning in January where “the bit of frost kills any lingering badness”. Distinctive, songlike language propels the story along, and the third person narrative is used in a way that draws you into Johnsey’s claustrophobic world of fierce love and adolescent-like turmoil. Through this character, Donal Ryan magically gives a voice to the voiceless, and does so with a razor-sharp perception and dark humour. In his description of Johnsey’s first disco, where Johnsey heads off with “a whole fiver” in his pocket, thinking how happy his mother would be to see him “all kitted out, like a normal fella”, Ryan pierces straight through to the bone with his observations and insight into the sensitive human soul. The writing throughout is confident, balanced and unbiased. Even the character of Eugene Penrose is written without any real tone of condemnation; it is subtly made clear that the bully of the village is as much a product of circumstance as Johnsey is.
In The Thing About December, Johnsey’s own memories and reveries are interwoven with the daily anguish of his life, from the innocence of his fantasies about girls (“loads of beautiful mermaids swimming around with no bras on and making his dinner and kissing him”) to the violent, impotent fantasies of standing up to his tormentors and contemplating his own death (“to breathe in water instead of air”). His struggle with words is palpable when he compares having an ordinary conversation to the “terrible fear” of running at the enemy in war. Words are Johnsey’s enemies, and he is betrayed by them throughout the novel. He cannot articulate his emotions, but he is all too aware of how others perceive him. His innocence is backed so tight into a corner by the month of December that it can only crack.
The Thing About December pulses with feeling and heart. Johnsey Cunliffe cannot fathom how some people can make words do their will. Donal Ryan puts in beautiful black and white all of the things Johnsey cannot say out loud. A.M. Dolan
- The Thing About December by Donal Ryan is available from all good book shops since 2013