Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart was such a wonderful read I needed little enticement to read the Irish author’s earlier written but later published The Thing About December.

It is even more wondrous.

The Thing About December is a tragic book, which goes to the very depths of human sadness and despair in a way that clings to you. It is deeply moving and affecting, yet strangely does not overwhelm. It is a challenging undertaking for authors to truly engender empathy in their readers. Ryan manages it magnificently.

The central character Johnsey is the quintessential tragic hero. Ryan speaks through Johnsey, to the extent that we see the world only as Johnsey sees it, and so authentically creates this perspective that we come to believe this as the only true vision.

“People are better inside your head. When you’re longing for them, they’re perfect.”

Johnsey’s seeing of the world may seem naïve and child-like. Yet it is extraordinarily pure and real. He does not have an explicit diagnosis, but we get the impression that he is ill-equipped for life, struggling to interact with others and to build relationships away from his parents. An only child, he is bereft when both his father and mother die.

“Loneliness covers the earth like a blanket…It runs down the walls inside of the house like tears and grows on the walls outside like a poisonous choking weed.”

His father dies first, cancer – “riddled by all accounts’. Ryan is a magician with words that he strings together to create emotions that almost tear you apart with their pathos. Speaking of the sofa that was central to the life he shared with his parents, Johnsey comments following his father’s death:

“That long, battered couch was covered in boxes and bits and bobs that had no business on a couch. It wouldn’t have been balanced right, anyway, without Daddy. There’d have been too much empty space on it, and that empty space would draw out your sadness like the vacuum cleaner draws out dust from behind the television: you’d forgotten it was there until you went rooting around for it.”

Johnsey’s mother retreats from the world following her husband’s death – “it was hard enough thinking of things to say to a woman who had hardly any words left for the world, only lonesome thoughts and muttered prayers.”

Johnsey’s perhaps naive at times view of the world is particularly touching:

“…three kinds of cancer to do for Daddy: he got it in his stomach, lungs and brain. Three kinds, imagine!

And he nearly bested them too.”

Johnsey cleared adored his father – “How could a man’s life just be made up of sadness over his dead father”. His mother’s life as a widow was consumed by loss and sadness, “a little hunched-over thing, like a question mark, wrapped in sorrow and silence.” Although often struggling with how to interact with people, he has an astute sense of the behaviour of others. He is aware how tiresome his mother’s protracted grief appears to others, who believed that she ‘should be getting over it’, two years later after her husband’s death. She never did.

“Sympathy doesn’t last forever. Like a pebble thrown in a river, it’s a splash and a ripple and gone.”

With his peculiar and perhaps paradoxical mix of naivety and grownupness (“The world doesn’t change, nor anything in it, when someone dies.” “The sky was the same blue the day after Daddy died as it was the day before”), Johnsey increasingly occupies a world of isolation and alienation, defined by a loneliness that’s “nothing and everything at the same time.”

“It seemed as though having a break from being lonesome made it ten times worse when you were once lonesome again.”

In Johnsey’s world, we glimpse, and experience such is the empathy Ryan creates, the real complexities, confusions and sadness that define humanness, and the living of it.

“…everything was lovely and normal and comfortable and destroyed forever at the same time.”