Off the Shelf: The Queen of Dirt Island

By Donal Ryan
Viking Publisher ISBN 9780593652930 2023 244 pp.
Review by Terrence J. Kenneally

One of this columns favorite Irish novelists’ latest book is full of heart and spark, but with a self-imposed problem. The book I am referring to is The Queen of Dirt Island, by Donal Ryan.

Before getting to the self-imposed problem, let’s start with the story. The Queen of Dirt Island tells the stories of four generations of women over 3 ½ decades in the town of Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, running from 1983 to the day before yesterday.

At the start of the book, there are only three women: grandmother Nana, mother Eileen (Nana’s daughter-in-law), and Eileen’s daughter Saoirse , who is born on the first line of the first chapter and who’s father dies in a car crash on the next page. This leaves Mary and Eileen and Saoirse dedicated to looking out for one another.

Soon however, other relatives come out of the woodwork and soon we meet the dead man’s brothers, Paudie and Chris – “one a jailbird and the other a simpleton.” Then there’s Richard, Eileen’s brother, who is in dispute with her over the land of their home.

Eileen is the self-styled Queen of Dirt Island, the place thus named the “envy and spite” of the locals, who resented the success the family made of their bit of land.

It’s a family story and families don’t have single plot lines, but as we go through the book, it becomes increasingly clear that Saoirse is the heart of the book. In some respects, the story involves her discovering more and more family connections she didn’t know she had, and most of whom have no good news to deliver.

And then, midway through, after Saoirse has become a mother herself at the age of 17, the ground shifts again. It’s this regularity that’s part of the problem. For reasons unclear, Ryan has set himself an artificial restraint with The Queen of  Dirt Island.

Each chapter is precisely 500 words long, and takes two pages. This sort of restraint is the province of the French Oulipo school of writing; it’s a method of limiting how you write in order to discover what it is possible to say. The problem is that once Ryan has decided that each chapter must have exactly the same word count, all scenes must fit that length, whether or not that violates the natural rhythm of the story.

Despite these structural deficits, his work is about a family where all the women want others to be happy, but nobody is quite sure how. The Queen of Dirt Island is the sixth book this column has reviewed of Donal Ryan and as with the others, a TOP SHELF read.

*Terrence J Kenneally is an attorney and owner of Terrence J, Kenneally & Assoc. in Rocky River, Ohio. He received his Master’s Degree in Irish Studies from John Carroll University and has taught Irish History and Literature.

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