Donal Ryan’s last novel “Strange Flowers” (2020) was voted Novel Of The Year at the Irish Book Awards. Do not be surprised if he does it again with this which I think is even better.
I absolutely loved his debut “The Spinning Heart” (2012) a book voted “Irish Book Of The Decade”. By the winter 2015 edition of NB magazine I was putting it forward as my choice for “Best Book Of The Twenty-First Century So Far”.
“Strange Flowers” took a while for me to get into. I felt the narrative style chosen with its very matter of fact fable or fairy story feel initially held me at bay and it wasn’t until about two-thirds of the way through that I realised the extent this canny author had immersed me into the book. Here, in what is very much a companion piece to “Strange Flowers” (although it works fine as a stand-alone) I was with him right from the start.
It is set in the same location with some of the same characters in a more supporting role this time but moving on a generation as we meet four generations of a family from rural Tipperary. Main character Saoirse is brought up by her mother with daily visits from her grandmother who supports her daughter-in-law widowed at the very beginnings of motherhood. Nana and Mother are the lifeblood of this novel, squabbling yet totally supportive, both have been let down by families in their past but they are not going to do that to the current generation. The last novel was dominated by the superb characterisation of Alexander, who I loved, here it is the relationship between the two strong women who pull the others through the ups and downs of life.
And what I really like about this book is that life just goes on, the community faces some quite shocking events and keeps going. Towards the end two characters who were central in the last book give their perspective to Saoirse in a way in which she thinks they might break out into the old Doris Day hit “Que Sera Sera” but this viewpoint does permeate the lives here. So much is subtle and underplayed and you don’t expect that from what is ostensibly a family saga. Nothing is laboured. Most of the characters would not even understand the relevance of the title, relating to a piece of land held by Mother’s family which has little part to play for most of the novel, other than it informs her personality. The narrative style gives a lightness of touch I wasn’t as aware of in the previous novel.
Characterisation is so rich, Donal Ryan has created a set of characters who are so well developed within a short space of time. He brings a whole community to life. In a way (although the characterisations and location are completely different) it felt to me just a tad reminiscent of what Armistead Maupin was trying to achieve in his “Tales Of The City” series, but I think Donal Ryan’s handling of this is stronger. He carried this off brilliantly in the talking heads approach of “The Spinning Heart” and has achieved it here within a very different narrative style. It is totally involving and very impressive writing.
The Queen Of Dirt Island is published by Transworld Digital as an ebook and Doubleday as a hardback on 18th August 2022 Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.