Book of the Week: The Weight of a Human Heart

The Weight of a Human Heart by Ryan O'Neill is our new Book of the Week.


Thousand page novels with 388 footnotes, prose written without using the letter ‘e’, the tale of an unnamed terrorist unfolding in one long, punctuation-less sentence, a short story captured in PowerPoint. Welcome to the world of experimental fiction, one in which local author Ryan O'Neill is a seasoned practitioner.

I first came across O'Neill’s writing in the pages of our small presses and journals - Meanjin, Scribe and Sleepers et al. His pieces always stood out as fiction that wasn’t afraid to transgress and upend, to intellectualise and deconstruct, and indeed his debut collection, The Weight of a Human Heart easily consolidates this vein. Case in point is ‘A Story in Writing’, which tells of a farcical love triangle using a different literary device in each section, from haiku to homeric similie to hyperbole. Or ‘Figures in a Marriage’, which charts the breaking apart of Helen and Roy with tables, lists, timelines and diagrams.

RyanONeill-web If this sounds like writing that may push you out of your comfort zone, that’s because it is. You’d be surprised at just how much emotion can be packed into seemingly innocuous fact or phrase (a good reminder, perhaps, about what lies behind the dearth of data that we go through every day). As I noted in my review:

‘[T]he emotional weight of these stories does not rest in their cleverness. Rather, it is in the slow-reveal of a certain kind of sadness lying behind seemingly ordinary facts and figures, of simple statements betraying a wider meaning (in 1979, Helen reads Jane Eyre, while her future husband Ray loses his virginity and leaves school. We know before it has begun how this relationship will end).’

The crux of experimental writing is its ability to hold the mirror up to the gaze of the reader - the story is one thing, but so are our expectations about how a narrative can (or perhaps should) be told. Realist fiction after all, is not ‘real’ at all. Stories like these highlights, very much tongue-in-cheek, the fallacies of language itself, and for that reason and more, are well worth a try.

The Weight of a Human Heart is out now in paperback ($27.95) and ebook ($9.99)

A book by