Donal Ryan may not be as well known outside of Ireland as some of his contemporaries, but his sixth novel, The Queen of Dirt Island, adds to an impressive body of work that should garner him wider recognition. This story of four generations of Irish women fractiously sharing their village home in modern-day County Tipperary has a gentle heart and a spine of steel, its appeal enhanced by Ryan’s understated yet evocative prose.
Only a few days after her birth, Saoirse Aylward loses her father in a car crash, leaving her mother, Eileen, with the task of raising the girl. Eileen is assisted by her opinionated mother-in-law, Mary, who moves into the family home from the nearby farm managed by her two surviving sons, one of whom is arrested for storing guns and explosives for the Irish Republican Army. Ryan elides most of Saoirse’s childhood until, prior to her 18th birthday, a drunken encounter with a singer in a local rock band produces a daughter, Pearl.
Then Saoirse’s “stupid accidental life” is upended again by the return of the town’s prodigal son, Joshua Elmwood, with his girlfriend, Honey Bartlett. After Honey departs for a filmmaking project, romance blossoms between Saoirse and Josh. It’s an unlikely and rocky pairing, but one that moves Saoirse farther down the path of maturity. This isn’t the story’s only fraught relationship, as Eileen and her brother also war over the humble piece of land that provides the novel’s title.
Whether Ryan is exploring the shifting dynamics of the Aylward women’s often intense interactions or following the contours of Saoirse and Josh’s tempestuous love affair, he does so with sensitivity and grace. In an unusual technique, each of the book’s chapters comprises two pages, some of them functioning almost as self-contained short stories, others seamlessly moving the plot forward. Ryan is adept at fashioning arresting images to enliven his storytelling, among them Eileen’s “utterances flung around like fistfuls of confetti.”
There is emotional and physical violence in The Queen of Dirt Island, along with tender and deeply felt moments. The novel’s predominant tone is pastoral, consistent with the beautiful Irish landscape Ryan evokes with subtle brushstrokes, and capable of leaving an imprint on the reader’s mind and heart.