“In every great Russian writer,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “we seem to discern the features of a saint, if sympathy for the suffering of others, love towards them, endeavor to reach some goal worthy of the most exacting demands of the spirit constitute saintliness.” She wasn’t wrong, but being English, her attention was drawn to the fashionable literature a continent away to the East instead of to the West.
In 2016, writing in the Guardian about Donal Ryan’s fourth book, All We Shall Know, Sebastian Barry, himself one of the finest Irish novelists of the last thirty-odd years, called Ryan “the king of the new wave of Irish writers.” That’s a mouthful considering that Ireland produces literary geniuses more often than Royal family scandals break.
If Ryan is indeed the new king, his rise was slow in coming. Publishers rejected his first two novels, The Spinning Heart (2012) and The Thing About December (2013), a total of 47 times. The Spinning Heart made the longlist for the Booker Prize and was named Irish Book of the Decade in 2016. Now with six novels and a short story collection in print, he has won enough prizes to fill a wing at the library of the University of Limerick, where he currently teaches creative writing.
In his latest novel, Queen of Dirt Island, you can almost hear the Chieftains playing “Women of Ireland” in the background. Queen is set in the 1980s with the uneasy rumble of the Northern Ireland troubles in the background; the island of the title is an undistinguished strip of land over which two factions of the Aylward family have been quarreling over for decades. One is headed by men; the other, at the heart of the novel, by women,
The Aylward women of the town of Nenagh in County Tipperary come to represent four generations of Irish womanhood: Nana, her daughter-in-law Eileen, her daughter Saoirse, and her daughter Pearl.
Fierce, resilient, and possessed of an inexhaustible strength of character, Saoirse grows into the central figure. “If she ever goes to America,” her mother says, “the Yanks won’t have a clue how to pronounce it.” (She’s right, we didn’t until Saoirse Ronan told Stephen Colbert it’s pronounced like “inertia.”)
Ryan tells their stories in short, vivid chapters, usually only two pages, in the style of classical Japanese writers Sei Shonagon and Lady Murasaki. Each chapter is headed with single words that sound like they could be taken from the New Testament: Orphan, Everything, Infinity, Forever, Abandoned, Witnessing, Heart, Lacerations, Flames, and Ashes, among others.
This method allows Ryan to get to the truth in a hurry and gives his compact, well-shaped story the scope of a much longer novel. At times The Queen of Dirt Island resembles Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, sans the magical realism. But who needs the supernatural when you can write like this:
—“‘Honey,’ Bartlett bent down to kiss Pearl’s head, and they continued downhill, as a murmuration of starlings swirled and dived above the placid lake.”
—At a wedding, Nana glares at the grandmother of the other family. Nana “stood pursed of lip and damp of eye, her opposite number on the other front pew assuming a similar aspect, both women’s chins raised in defiance of the other’s reservations, neither woman giving an inch of ground in the pitched battle of forced pleasantness and nuptial bon homme.”
—At the close, with the great-granddaughter headed for New York, “Pearl Aylward felt her world at once contracting and expanding, and she felt her heart beat steady in her chest, as they moved, those women, through the green country, into the blue horizon.”
Fortune grant us another novel, an Aylward in America.