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.
Family and relationships are a major deciding factor in how a person turns out. Our past influences our desires and the decisions we will make in the future. Brit Bennett discusses how we choose our own fate and how that fate may be different than the ones our families had previously thought we would take.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett tells the story of the Vignes twin sisters. Growing up, the two were inseparable and identical. People in the community found it hard to tell the two apart, but knew that wherever they saw one, the other was not far behind. Living in a small, southern black community with rigid ideals, the Vignes sisters run away at age sixteen to escape the less than perfect notions the community had about who they should be. Struggling to make out a new life for themselves, one twin makes the difficult decision to leave the other behind. Her decision sets the family on a rocky path that none of them could have predicted.
The Vignes sisters’ life decisions at the age of sixteen shape their daily lives for years. As adults, their lives couldn’t be more different. Their families, their racial identities, and their communities know them as separate individuals with vastly different pasts.
Fast forward many years and one of the sisters has come back to her hometown with her daughter. Separated by states, the other sister has been secretly passing as white for many years and her white husband doesn’t know anything about her past. Even though the twins are living vastly different lives, their fates are still intricately connected.
This novel follows the Vignes twin sisters from the 1950s to the 1990s, spanning many areas across the country from the Deep South to California. As the twins grow, many generations of the Vignes family come alive to tell their tales. Both the older generation and the younger generation work to create lives that they can be proud of with the sisters sandwiched in between. When the twins’ daughters grow up, their lives are bound to cross. The delicate life balance full of truth and lies the sisters have created is destined to come crashing down at some point. It’s only a matter of time.
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