BPS Review. Queen of Dirt Island, Donal Ryan ( Oct 2023)
Book Review BPS Bookclub, October 2023
Queen of Dirt Island, Donal Ryan
 Well, a funny result when I totted up the scores of this. An absolutely equal split between all three ‘views’, which I’ll loosely summarise  as :
Scores 4.5 + = those who found it overall enjoyable, with specific merits.
Between 3.5 and 4  = plenty to like but saw the flaws.
Scoring 3 or less  = plenty to say about what they didn’t like.
My impression, before I came back to my notes, was that the lower scores were going to be the largest section, which shows perhaps that the negative criticism is what we remember most. It was unusual that BOTH groups started with an upbeat and positive note, which then became more critical as the discussion went on. And those who had read it twice found more to dislike...
So, what conclusions to draw from this – other than we obviously all allow ourselves to be influenced by group think? There was an interesting debate on the ‘writing to formula’ aspect, perhaps a function of today’s creative writing courses – but it is important to counter that with the fact that ‘those’ sort of writers are often way more commercially successful than others, so it is a valid response to what people want and enjoy. Not to mention ( and you did) the  important democratisation of writing.  The huge popularity of Donal Ryan can’t be written off!
I’m getting side-tracked from The Queen of Dirt Island. And there is plenty in this story to talk about. Not least the strict 500 word per chapter structure, which had as many fans as detractors. Whilst it gave some people impetus to keep engaged and reading, it also perhaps made the book more ‘ put-downable’?  Content-wise, it allowed Ryan to throw in some truly brutal and seismic events, which just had to be dealt with in a brisk fashion. We did admire his prose, which truly had ‘words like sparkling water’ at times, but some  felt the traumas were just too glibly written through. Similarly, there are explosive moments of bad language which jarred with some and were loved by others. 
The characters were greatly discussed – again, with plenty of competing views. Events revolve around ‘the mother and the granny’, Eileen and Mary, who have a powerful friendship which both supports their family, and perhaps allows others little room to be themselves. Saoirse, we felt, was subdued into passivity once her teenage pregnancy cut off all her ambition and sense of self. Each male character was somehow dysfunctional, either emasculated by indecision or striving for domination through physical brutality.  However Ryan does capture the essence of rural Ireland and sets it firmly in the 1980’s although at times it feels like it could have been fifty years earlier.
Did we all agree on … anything?!  Well the ending was just a bit too cliched, trite, and generally unsatisfactory. Putting your own novel on the Leaving Cert exam, for goodness sake.
A modern Sean O’Casey?  Shades of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter? Family relationships  as in Colm Toibin’s The Blackwater Lightship? Or are we  just over thinking it – like Donal Ryan himself?
November 18, 2023 by Books Scissors

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