The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan is a tender and poignant multigenerational story about the Aylward women from a small, rural village in Co. Tipperary, Ireland. These are women who have known heartbreak, tragedy and judgement, and yet they love so fiercely, fight on in life, and hold each other up; and it’s this bustling household, full of shouting and cursing but also laughter, and brimming with love, which lies at the heart of this story. In Saoirse, her mother Eileen, and her paternal grandmother Mary (Nana), Ryan has created formidable and joyous characters, the two older women in particular. They are women who do things their own way, and don’t apologise for it; Ryan conjures a vivid picture of Eileen, as a woman who smokes, wears sunglasses and wears her hair long, setting her apart from her peers of the time; while Nana is sharply opinionated, equal parts wisecracks and wisdom. It’s these strong-willed, stubborn women that bring Saoirse up in the world, and Nana in particular who guides her on her way, as we follow her trials and tribulations growing up. It’s not all women though; we also follow the kindnesses and misadventures of Uncles Chris and Paudie as they, often clumsily, try to make their way in the world.
Ryan’s characters feel so deeply, and feel so deeply for each other. Both the deep love and the shattering heartbreak in his writing are palpable and enveloping, reaching out from the pages and tugging at our heartstrings; he creates a world that draws us in so completely. We meet some of the characters from his last novel Strange Flowers (which I absolutely loved) again, venturing further and elsewhere into this world that Ryan had already conjured, and this novel adapts the same beautiful, almost timeless or folkloric writing style, rendering many of the passages dreamlike. The chapters are short, moving us through the story in vignettes capturing meaningful moments, and the colloquial dialogue is, as ever, vibrant; from the great banter within the household, to the humorous interactions with neighbours, and the brilliantly drawn small-town talk and dynamics.
The Queen of Dirt Island is published August 18th by Doubleday. Thank you to Penguin Random House and NetGalley for my eARC.
Donal Ryan is an award-winning author from Nenagh, County Tipperary, whose work has been published in over twenty languages to major critical acclaim. The Spinning Heart won the Guardian First Book Award, the EU Prize for Literature (Ireland), and Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards; it was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Desmond Elliott Prize, and was voted ‘Irish Book of the Decade’. His fourth novel, From a Low and Quiet Sea, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award 2018, and won the Jean Monnet Prize for European Literature. His most recent novel, Strange Flowers, was voted Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards, and was a number one bestseller. Donal lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Limerick. He lives with his wife Anne Marie and their two children just outside Limerick City.