Another Honour for Donal Ryan

Book Review by Frank O’Shea

THE QUEEN OF DIRT ISLAND. By Donal Ryan. Doubleday 2022. 242 pp.

The first thing that strikes you is the structure of the book: 121 chapters, each with a one-word title and a one-sentence opening paragraph, each finishing before the bottom of its second page. There are no punctuation marks to indicate speech, but you don’t miss them, because the conversations flow naturally from the prose.

There is one other thing that you will notice if you have read any of Donal Ryan’s books. It is the subtle change in the settings for the story. Ryan is noted for writing about small Irish villages and towns in an affectionate way, people supporting each other and being nice to each other. But here he is probably closer to how such places actually operate, the tensions and divisions and petty jealousies.

The language too, is stronger, something near a record use of the f-word, as noun, verb and participle. The worst offenders, it must be said, are the women in the story who seem to be in verbal conflict for much of their dealings with each other. The difference, however, is that they love each other dearly and the words are often only a cover for this affection. They are fighting their own fragility, their humanity and weaknesses, but they come together against any outside pressures, whether words or actions.

So, let us introduce the characters. In the opening chapter, the father of a newborn is killed in a road accident; he has seen and kissed his new daughter, but he and his wife had not even settled on a name. The child will be called Saoirse. Her mother Eileen will be greatly helped by her husband’s mother, known throughout as Nana. As time moves on, Saoirse will also have a daughter she will name Pearl. The story revolves around these four women and their friends and rivals in the small farming community some distance from town.

It is tempting to summarise some of the rest of the story, extending as it does over a number of years and involving conflict between Eileen and her own family. New characters are introduced – even the IRA gets a small role – but the story never wanders far from the four women. And there is something about the way the story is told in those short, sometimes seemingly disjointed chapters, that persuades this reviewer to suggest to the reader that they should follow him and attack the novel in the same short 24-hour period that he used.

Of course, ‘attack’ is not the right word, but there is something about the way the book is set out, those enticing two-page chapters, that has the reader engrossed long after lights out. This may well be Donal Ryan’s best book yet, and that is high commendation indeed. Kenny’s deserve credit for nominating it as their book of the year for 2022.

Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tintean editorial team.