The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan
Published by Viking
Publication date: February 28, 2023
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Cultural, Historical, Literary
The week Saoirse Aylward is born her father is killed in an accident, leaving her mother, Eileen alone to raise her. Their lives in a small village in western Ireland are at the heart of Donal Ryan’s boisterous, tender novel The Queen of Dirt Island. Although the novel stays within the village’s borders it’s an expansive story encompassing four generations of Irish women with all their strength, fragility, and most importantly, humor.
It may be the 1980s, but the fact that Saoirse was born five months after her parents’ marriage means that in the village her mother is a whore and she’s a bastard. But for as much as Eileen’s family and social circle has abandoned her, her mother-in-law Mary is steadfast in her support. The two women are initially joined in their grief for their loss of a husband and a son, but as the years pass the bond deepens to an unbreakable friendship. Even when tempers are frayed, patience is lost, and history repeats itself the bedrock of love is never shaken.
If Eileen is considered wanton for her premarital sins, Mary is a stereotypical Irish grandmother—a character type I’ve come to realize I almost always love reading. A stalwart Catholic, she goes to church almost every day, but can verbally flay everyone from the postman to the butcher with her cursing. She and Eileen threaten to clatter or wallop each other on a daily basis and use curse words like commas, but there’s no real violence within the house.
In the midst of all this clamor is Saoirse. The Queen of Dirt Island dips in and out of the journal of her life with brief chapters chronicling the everyday of a young girl growing up in an Irish village. A small life, that as she grows and meets more people, feels boring and limited. Her anxieties and doubts are those most teenagers feel, but Saoirse attaches small and boring to herself, questioning why she’s never gone anywhere or accomplished anything. What she can’t see, but what permeates the page is the writer within the girl becoming a woman, the observer beautifully sharing her story. Her shy voice reaches out from the page, pulling the reader in with her insight.
The Queen of Dirt Island falls in the sweet spot of character development blended with the kind of sharp, sarcastic humor I live for. That it comes enveloped in the Irish dialect is a bonus. There is something to the cadence of Irish writing, the combination of lyricism with earthiness, that is incredibly appealing. Even their swearing sounds posh and when strung together into dialogue such as Mary’s outburst about her grown son falling asleep in church it leaves me inordinately happy.
He does be wall-falling with tiredness every Sunday. He fell asleep at mass last week. I had to belt him several times before he woke and he roared then when he did and made a holy show of us.
I can love a book for any number of reasons. Often, it’s because it makes me think and expands my mind to people and places I might never experience in real life. Sometimes, in the most special of cases, a book touches me and my heart overrides my brain. That’s the case with The Queen of Dirt Island. There are some events in the novel that could have made me judge-y, but Ryan wrote these women so well, gave them such spirit, my love for their voices never wavered.
Want more from strong, funny Irish women? Try Miriam Toews Fight Night, one of my favorite books last year.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Viking Books in exchange for an honest review.*