Tag Archives: Donal Ryan

The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan

Last November, when my book group chose the books for 2023, I recommended The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan. The novel had good reviews and I remembered reading and enjoying The Spinning Heart (2012). The suggestion that it concerned some strong Irish women made it an attractive choice. So here we are, 12 months later, ready to discuss this gem of a book.

The Queen of Dirt Island

The story is structured in a series of two-page chapters, which roll forward and provide a rhythmic beat to one’s reading. It’s a steady story which unfolds over a couple of decades on the edge of a remote and rural Irish housing estate in County Tipperary. It begins with the birth of one of the women, Saoirse. Her father is killed in a road accident even before she is brought home from hospital. He mother, Mary, has been rejected by her family for becoming pregnant. But her mother-in-law, Eileen known as Nana, looks out for her, becomes her friend, and eventually comes to live with Mary and Saoirse.

The story of the women’s struggles, within their families, on the edges of their community, against poverty, and the demands of life, is carried forward through the steady pulse of the short chapters. The prose has a lilt to it, and the speech of the women, their idioms and imagery, are from the best Irish traditions.

Someone had asked Paudie to hide guns in the shed, down behind a load of bales of hay. And other stuff, too. Nana wasn’t sure what. Semtex, Eileen. What in the name of God and His Blessed Mother is Semtex? It doesn’t sound like anything that could ever do any good. And apparently we could all have been blown to Kingdom Come over it. Jim Gildea told me. You’re lucky, Mary, he said. Someone was watching over ye the way it was all brought out in the open now, before Paudie was in too deep. In too deep, Jim Gildea said! As if a shed full of guns and Sem-fucking-tex isn’t deep enough! (21)

Saoirse learns about the world from the conversation of Mary and her mother-in-law Eileen. She is well protected until she is a teenager. In the extract above she hears about her uncle’s arrest.

There’s a great deal of humour in the talk of the adult women as Saoirse grows up. She learns about her world through overhearing their conversations. Despite the lack of punctuation it is always clear who is speaking. When Saoirse reveals that she is pregnant, the chapter called IMMACULATE, is one long paragraph of her mother’s fury. 

How in the fucking fuck could you have gotten pregnant? […] I thought you were different. I thought you’d be something. God forgive me, it’s my own fault for trusting you. I thought behind it all that you were good. (73-74)

The story is built on the strength of the four women: from the grandmother, through Mary to Saoirse and to Pearl, Saoirse’s child. Mary is the queen of Dirt Island. She inherits it from her parents, despite her brother’s ambitions to take it from her. She is the character in the book written by Saoirse ‘s boyfriend, Josh. A heroine, redrawn from Saoirse’s own memories to create something ‘unrecognizable, alien, monstrous’ (214). Josh spiced up the story that we know, to distort Saoirse’s father and his death, and her mother’s role in Paudie’s misdeeds. Later the novel is rewritten and becomes a classic, included in the Irish school curriculum that Pearl is taught.

This distortion reminds the reader of the strength of these women, and we know they love and support each other through daily life, growing up, marriages, births, deaths and betrayals. They shape Saoirse childhood, and then Pearl’s. They have warmth and pride, fury and revenge, love and pity. 

We finish this book, having enjoyed its rhythms and impetus, and the slow march of the decades, aware that we have been given a glimpse of loving life and community. And we make sense of the epigram.

Let the books remember the local battles.
Re-write the plot. Let the harvest wither.
This is your life. She is your great event.
Keep her in the sun.
[‘History’, Mary O’Malley]

What will the other members of my book group think?

The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan first published in 2022. I used the Penguin edition. 245pp 

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Five World Book Recommendations

It’s World Book Day – Thursday 6th March 2014. All over the country primary schools are alive with young people dressed as their favourite book character. I’m using World Book Day to recommend five reads from beyond the UK. (Nothing is implied by the order in which these are presented.)

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1. Donal Ryan (2012) The Spinning Heart

This is post-crash, rural Ireland. Many people are suffering because of trickery and corruption, or because benefits and services have been reduced, or from the fallout from a murder and a kidnap. The format of the novel is original and effective: it is narrated through the individual voices of the many villagers who feature in the story.

This narrative form helps perceptions develop, especially of the man Bobbie Mahon. Some of the voices/characters don’t quite ring true, for example the two kidnappers. The men emerge as very focused on sex, as violent and physical. The women die young, or put up with a great deal from their menfolk, and some get on with life.

82 Spin HThe novel evoked the life of a small community in Ireland only glimpsed on my brief tourist visits.

Winner of the Guardian First Book Award 2013. Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2013.

 

2. Hanna Krall (2006) Chasing the King of Hearts

This was a hard, sometimes excoriating read. It follows the search by a Polish and Jewish woman Isabel for her husband in the second world war. I started it, left it, went back to it and read it from the beginning again.

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One of its themes is how war makes normal codes of moral behaviour quite redundant. For example, it is hardly shocking that Isabel allows a man who has raped her to describe himself as decent, because he didn’t demand more of her, turn her in or shoot her. Or that she volunteers to use her nursing skills to work with Mendel and survives. On the other hand a curious economy of exchange and favours emerges to which she is faithful, including bargaining with God. Nor does everything come good at the longed-for moment of reconciliation. War changes everything, even love.

The novella is written in a rather bland, flat style, which means that the accumulating atrociousness of the situation can be told as one thing after another. Teeth are knocked out, shoulders dislocated, escapes made, suicides committed, poison bought, names exchanged until nothing matters any more than anything else. This too is horrific.

Another novella from the excellent Peirene Press. Translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm

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3. Jhumpa Lahiri (2013) The Lowland

From India and USA

This family saga followed Subash and his family from childhood in Calcutta to old age in New Hampshire. There were two very different brothers and the reader is curious – how will their paths differ? The more outgoing Udayan, joins the Naxalites and is summarily executed in front of his parents and wife. Subash marries his wife Gauri because she is pregnant. The story then follows her move to the US, her frustrations with being a mother, and wife to her brother in law. She leaves for a career in California when the child, Bela, is still quite young,.

From this point the novel presents parenthood in various forms – Subash’s who lets everyone believe he is Bela’s father, Gauri’s who left her daughter behind, and Subash’s parents in Calcutta. Bela matures and we know that she will have to confront the truth about her parents, and how her life in America relates to her family’s roots in Calcutta.

Jhumpa Lahiri is a neat writer but while the novel is crammed with events, they are narrated in short paragraphs, with little differentiation between their significance. The questions about family, obligations, genetics, political action vs personal fulfilment, involvement in political murder –are hardly posed, simply offered.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013

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4. Ruth Ozeki (2013) A Tale for the Time Being

I loved this novel from Canada and Japan, which had some important things to say about the world and old women! You will find my review here.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013.

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5. NoViolet Bulawayo (2013) We need new names

From Zimbabwe and USA

Darling lives with her friends in Paradise a shanty town in Zimbabwe. Life used to be better, but during Mugabe’s rule it got worse. Darling and her friends view the adult world through eyes of innocence, games, tree climbing, thieving trips to the affluent suburb of Budapest. This section of the novel is very strong on Darling’s voice, on her ambitions, hopes etc.

She escapes to America, to live with her aunty, in ‘Destroyedmichygen’ and grows up fast as a strange talking illegal African girl. We get snapshots of episodes in her life: a wedding, an illicit trip to the mall, watching x-rated movies with school friends, and a discursive chapter on why people leave. What comes through are the pains of exile, of not living at home.

I enjoyed the strong voice here, the evocation of children’s lives in Zimbabwe. The feistiness and inventiveness of children living in poverty.

This is the fourth of my recommendations nominated for the Man Booker Prize 2013. What a good year it was for world books.

82 WBD logo grWhat books from around the world have you read in the last year?

 

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