The Aylward women of Nenagh, County Tipperary, Ireland, are mad about each other, but you wouldn't always think it. You'd have to know them to know that-in spite of what the neighbors might say about raised voices and dramatic scenes-their house is a place of peace, filled with love, a refuge from the sadness and cruelty of the world. Their story begins at an end and ends at a beginning. It involves wives and widows, gunrunners and gougers, sinners and saints. It's a story of terrible betrayals and fierce loyalties, of isolation and togetherness, of transgression, forgiveness, desire, and love. Of all the things family can be and all the things it sometimes isn't.
Underscoring and superseding all the griefs in Donal Ryan’s new novel, The Queen of Dirt Island, are joys of every kind ... Love is the great triumph and the great mystery, and the love among the Aylward women of Nenagh, Ireland — relentless, reliable and hilarious — is what I think every person hopes for ... If language — lyric, lovely and funny, steeped in County Tipperary — and women (men come and go, rarely center a chapter and are often useless, sometimes cruel) are of no interest to you, The Queen of Dirt Island is not your next read. Ryan’s book is a celebration, in an embroidered, unrestrained, joyful, aphoristic and sometimes profane style, of both ... These are vignettes, often powerful, sometimes too on-the-nose, but certainly never drooping or dragging. If you are the kind of reader who loves the connective tissue, the strong, sinuous, sinewy chain of narrative, you may find the quick march of the very short chapters disjointed and off-putting. But for this reader, the shape of the chapters, from opening lines to endings...forms their own satisfying chain, and it is Saoirse who is the chain for the entire narrative, within and around her family.
Mr. Ryan works the details, nuances and upshot of this relationship into an intricate, painfully perceptive picture of failed empathy, of neediness meeting exploitation, genuineness confounded by presumption, truth misappropriated and transformed into travesty ... As for Mr. Ryan’s treatment of Saoirse: I do not know of another male writer who has so perfectly captured the experiences and thoughts of a woman as he has. Saoirse’s shades of emotion and thought are poignantly true to life, recognizable, and perfectly conveyed. Further, as we have come to expect from Mr. Ryan, this very fine novel concludes on a note of sweetness and, also, in this case, triumph.
Exquisite ... Ryan...finds everything he needs to traverse the universe of the human heart ... The paradoxical smallness of this place is aptly reflected in the form Ryan uses for The Queen of Dirt Island. The entire novel is presented as a series of two-page chapters — each about 500 words long. That constraint makes heavy demands on the narrative, but the effect for readers is a series of emerald moments. We encounter Saoirse’s life in finely cut anecdotes polished in the tumbler of her little home. Everything here feels utterly surprising and yet entirely inevitable ... These stories could get precious if Ryan weren’t so attentive to the strains of violence and heartache running under the surface of the village ... Ryan captures the despair that sometimes opens up under a young person with no more warning or explanation than a sinkhole ... As the novel progresses, the act of recording and shaping family tales becomes central to the plot. Indeed, there’s as much implicit wisdom in these pages about how to live as how to write.