‘The Queen of Dirt Island,’ by Donal Ryan

Edward Settle
Edward Settle

FICTION: A short, powerful novel about Irishwomen who meet heartache with resolve and dark humor.

“The Queen of Dirt Island” by Donal Ryan; Viking (244 pages, $27)

A man is killed in a car wreck on the second page of Donal Ryan’s new novel. This is but the first tragedy suffered by the Aylwards, a small family headed by hearty Irishwomen. Subsequent chapters feature an attempted murder, two devastating suicides, the suspicious death of an imprisoned family member and, most shocking of all, a front-yard fracas in which a grandmother-to-be flattens her daughter’s antagonist.

There’s a lot of anguish in “The Queen of Dirt Island,” but it coexists with pluck, wisdom and humor, qualities that imbue the novel with buoyant beauty. Ryan’s latest is another rich and satisfying tale from a writer whose narrative style — poetic, earthy and humane, as showcased in his Booker Prize finalist “From a Low and Quiet Sea” — grows sharper by the book.

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Although a number of obstacles stand in her way, Eileen Aylward is due to inherit a tiny freshwater island in her hometown, “a village that nobody’d ever heard of.” Her life story is eventful and efficiently told. Each of the novel’s roughly 100 chapters is two pages long, a user-friendly structure that beckons to those who claim they’re too busy to read.

After the first-chapter death of her husband, Eileen grows more protective of her young daughter Saoirse, and forms a resilient bond with her mother-in-law Mary. The adults’ conversations are packed with dark comic insults. When Mary implies that her daughter-in-law isn’t a great mother, Eileen threatens “to strangle her, to suffocate her, to drown her, to shoot her, to take her to the” veterinarian. A stranger “could not be blamed for supposing them to be mortal enemies.”

Across the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the Aylwards struggle to preserve their pugilistic spirit amid great sorrow. Calamity strikes Mary’s other sons. Saoirse loses a close friend to suicide and, after a one-night stand, gets pregnant with a daughter who might never meet her father.

With absorbing subplots about the collapse of the so-called Celtic Tiger economic boom and neighboring Northern Ireland’s sectarian fighting, this book might be called a historical novel of the recent past. Like Ryan’s previous fiction, it’s attuned to the beauty of English as spoken in Ireland. He mostly forgoes quotation marks, fashioning lyrical sentences featuring multiple speakers. “You’ll break your neck, young Gleeson, doing that, but the boy just laughed and said, Hello, Missus Aylward, and cycled on,” Ryan writes.

The dauntless, irreverent, foulmouthed Aylward women give the book an enviable trait: hardscrabble vitality. When a rival comes to the house and threatens Saoirse, who’s about to give birth, Eileen delivers a nose-bloodying headbutt. “Saoirse felt sad for” the girl on the receiving end, Ryan writes, and “for anyone in the world who didn’t have a mother like hers.”

Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.

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