The Queen of Dirt Island by Irish author Donal Ryan is a short novel with even shorter two-page chapters. The brief chapters allow for quick mood changes – bleakness and sad events are followed by the very dark humor of Nana and her daughter-in-law.
The novel follows several generations of women in a housing estate in rural County Tipperary in the 1990s. Seen through the eyes of Saoirse, we get to know Mary (Nana), Eileen (Saoirse’s mother) and Pearl (Saoirse’s daughter). They are the focus though there are other richly drawn characters, such as Paudie, Saoirse’s uncle who is in prison for his IRA activities.
The vocabulary and idioms are so very authentically Irish that googling is a must (boreen, busht, and cop on). Eileen and Mary, in particular have a very clear-eyed view of the Catholic church – abiding by its traditions but also uncowed by the local clergy. The irreverence of these two women is a very major part of the charm of this book. They squabble with large amounts of profanity but are devoted to each other.
The title refers to a childhood idyll, an island that was part of the farm where Mary grew up and she ultimately inherits it even though her family has disowned her. The untraditional group of women are the objects of gossip but Eileen is fierce and will physically fight anyone who disrespects the little family. The women rely on each other to survive after the men die, are absent, or who have used their power to withhold property and inheritance.