The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan

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Review by Susan Osborne

Opening with a beginning and an end, The Queen of Dirt Island follows four generations of women in one unconventional household, all devoted to each other in their own way.

Wasn’t it the queerest set-up you ever heard of? A widow and her dead husband’s mother, and they together now ten times longer than the couple had been, and they solid wrapped in one another. They understood each other, you see.

Saoirse is born nearly five months after her parents’ marriage resulted in an estrangement from Eileen’s disapproving parents. Tragically left to bring up her daughter alone, Eileen becomes so close to her mother-in-law that Nana moves in with Eileen and Saoirse when one son marries and the other lands in prison. It hardly makes any difference as she’s long since been eating her supper in the bungalow, a lousy cook herself. Saoirse loves the background banter between the two women, growing up straining her ears to catch the whispered gossip Nana can’t resist relaying or exaggerating. She’s a happy girl, not especially popular until one of the cool crowd picks her out with tragic and unexpected results. When Josh Underwood appears along with his girlfriend Honey, a friendship is struck that offers Saoirse an intimacy she’s never known before, together with a surprising opportunity. Eileen and Nana continue their litany of affectionate insult until Nana slips into an inevitable decline. By the end of the novel, forty years have passed and the fourth generation of Aylward women is making its way in the world.

The dead have a hold on us all, Nana said. And the thing about them is they’ll never change their minds.

Ryan’s novel gently unfolds his story in short, snapshot chapters, the occasional punchy shock moving it in a different direction to the one readers might have expected. The Aylward women are all affectionately and astutely portrayed, from Saoirse’s eavesdropping early years to Nana’s eager, salacious gossip. Ryan’s writing is as mellifluously elegant as ever, his story expertly spun with a pleasing thread of humour running through it. The Queen of Dirt Island shares the same setting as Strange Flowers characters from which become bound closely into the Aylwards’ story, putting me in mind of Kent Haruf. The writing is very different but both Haruf and Ryan share that ability to paint the universal on a small canvas, evoking an intimacy which draws us into their characters’ worlds. I loved it and am hoping to meet the Aylward women again some time, preferably sooner rather than later.

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From Susan Osborne A Life in Books. Never, ever leave home without a book

Donal Ryan, The Queen of Dirt Island, (Penguin, 2023). 978-1804991077, 243pp.,, paperback.

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