The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan

Set in a small Irish village, Nenagh, four generations of Aylward women live loudly, argumentatively and with fierce love for each other, ‘all wrapped up in one bundle’.

Eileen Aylward married because she was pregnant and was disowned by her family and on the birth of her daughter, Saoirse, her husband was killed in a car accident. Her mother-in-law owned a farm but eventually came to live with them whilst her son ran it and together, the women lived their lives with traumas and heartaches but always with the love of and for each other. Even if it didn’t sound like it most of the time. Boy could these women cuss.

There is no doubt that this is a novel about women with the men often characterised as weak, not very clever, drippy, depressed, unable to live up to their father’s expectations or angry and violent. Mary was the head of the family, straight-talking and loud and not afraid of what others thought of her or of Eileen her daughter-in-law raising a child without a man. Eileen lived up to her name Queen of Dirt Island, ready to attack anyone who hurt her daughter or Mary, on one occasion head-butting the girl who shouted at her daughter. She grew up with the rough and tumble of a brother that she fought with constantly, one time pushing him off the roof of the family barn, and whilst this violence is not on display often, every now and then it escapes.

When Saoirse becomes pregnant Mary and Eileen decide that the house wasn’t big enough and that they need an extension, a bedroom and toilet of her own. They can’t afford it so ask the builder to teach them how to lay bricks and build it themselves.

Her room a small bit crooked in the wall for all Mother’s care with a plumb line.

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Saoirse is the character that I think is the least well-developed, strangely as it becomes clear towards the end of the book that she is telling the story. She seems quite blank in her early years, doesn’t know that she was raped even if she wasn’t hurt. She certainly wasn’t in any state to consent to sex. In a chapter entitled ‘Immaculate’ we get one sentence that is a page and three quarters long of Eileen’s thoughts about her daughter’s pregnancy.

. . . the pregnant virgin, look out there, Mary, and see can you see the three wise fucking men coming down the hill with our gold and our fankincense and our fucking myrrh, look out and see can you see the Holy Spirit and the North Star, our lady is after having an immaculate conception and she’s going to give birth to the king of all men . . .

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Saoirse is desperate to be in love, falling for Josh who then asks her to write down all the stories that her Mother and Nana tell and pass them onto him so that he can turn them into a book. She does this but when she reads the book he has written finally comes to her senses and stands up for herself, horrified at the way the women have been depicted. I have only just finished reading a book about author’s stealing stories from other people – A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne – and thought here we go again. A woman written out of the story that she wrote by a man who was supposed to be her lover.

These women live in a small world, never travelling far but have the richness of family life that so many people wish for. Pearl, however, lives a life they didn’t, finishing school and going to college to train to be a teacher and then taking a year out in her second year to travel safe and secure in the love of the women back in Ireland.

Written in short chapters or vignettes reminiscent of memories, the writing flows and descibes the life of the women particularly well. The dialogue between Mary and anyone is sharp and rather honest even though it is never demarcated with speech punctuation.

Her mother then at the back door and the postman offering to lift the box in for her, and her mother saying it was okay, and the postman saying, Lift with your legs , not your back. Nana’s voice then floating out from her perch by the living-room window. He’s some feckin’ know-it-all, wouldn’t you think he’d lift it himself if he’s such an expert, and the jolly postman smiling, winking, calling back from his cargo doors Hello Mrs Aylward! and Nana shouting back, Oh, hello, Francis, love, is it yourself? Tell your mother I was asking for her!

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I read this book because it is our next book club choice and because I am going to hear Donal Ryan talk at Budleigh Salterton’s Literary Festival. The Queen of Dirt Island is the Book Club choice for the festival.

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