The girl at the center of Donal Ryan’s exquisite new novel is born into animosity and grief. Her mother was ostracized for getting pregnant; her father was killed the day she was born. But from that cruel soil grows a life of unbridled joy and affection.

Such is the abiding miracle of “The Queen of Dirt Island.” Here, in Ryan’s seventh book, unfolds the story of a small Irish village “that nobody’d ever heard of, tucked between a hillside and a lake.” That baby who arrives under such inauspicious circumstances is named Saoirse, which means “freedom” in Irish. Her distraught mother worries that “if she ever goes to America the yanks won’t have a clue how to pronounce it,” but she needn’t worry about that. County Tipperary will be Saoirse’s whole world. And it’s in such cramped geography that Ryan, one of Ireland’s best-selling writers, finds everything he needs to traverse the universe of the human heart.

Fans of Ryan’s work will recognize this area and some of these characters from his previous novel, “Strange Flowers,” which was voted novel of the year by the Irish Book Awards in 2020. But Ryan has set his new novel apart by subject and structure. The paradoxical smallness of this place is aptly reflected in the form Ryan uses for “The Queen of Dirt Island.” The entire novel is presented as a series of two-page chapters – each about 500 words long. That constraint makes heavy demands on the narrative, but the effect for readers is a series of emerald moments. We encounter Saoirse’s life in finely cut anecdotes polished in the tumbler of her little home. Everything here feels utterly surprising and yet entirely inevitable.

This is a realm of women. Men exist here, but they’re tangential, sidelined by their anger or their sorrow or their careless habit of dying. Saoirse’s mother – forever loyal to her late husband – raises her only child in a newly built bungalow in a small housing development. Saoirse can see that other children have fathers, but she doesn’t mind the difference. “Better to have a mother who smoked,” she thinks, “and wore sunglasses even when it wasn’t sunny.” And what a voice she has! “Most of Mother’s speech was indirect, utterances flung around like fistfuls of confetti, vaguely aimed and scattered randomly.” Although she won’t tell Saoirse anything about her past – “her secret other life” – that leaves plenty of room for the imaginative girl “to wonder and speculate and to draw inside herself vistas of possibilities, to build a castle of towers and battlements and to let it fill with all of Mother’s whispered ghosts, all the sorrowful mysteries of the world.”

That may sound lonely, but there’s little loneliness in this house, where she’s “swathed and cosseted in love,” especially after Saoirse’s grandmother – “Nana” – moves in. This older woman, who loves with a “gruff constancy,” is an inveterate gossip and a born storyteller. Even before Saoirse knows what her grandmother is talking about, she can appreciate the older woman’s patter, which “felt like a stream of sparkling water that the sun was shining on so fiercely that you couldn’t quite see the stream itself but just the light off it.” Indeed, much of “The Queen of Dirt Island” is made up of Nana’s wild yarns, “like the one about the chickens and her first holy communion cardigan,” which involves a disastrous car ride of human vomit and bird poo. Many a night, Saoirse lies in bed imagining writing down these antics “so that everyone could read about the impossibly ancient world of Nana’s girlhood.”

These stories could get precious if Ryan weren’t so attentive to the strains of violence and heartache running under the surface of the village. The same rumors that provide so much entertainment can suddenly turn vicious and wreck a home or snuff out a life. Ryan captures the despair that sometimes opens up under a young person with no more warning or explanation than a sinkhole; families are torn apart by greed; one of Saoirse’s beloved uncles gets snarled up in the Irish Republican Army; another marries an infertile woman driven mad by longing. As Saoirse grows older, she encounters disappointments, too.

But she also becomes more self-conscious about the pleasures of storytelling. In fact, as the novel progresses, the act of recording and shaping family tales becomes central to the plot. Indeed, there’s as much implicit wisdom in these pages about how to live as how to write.

In many delightful ways, this is territory well traveled by other great contemporary Irish writers, including John McGahern, Niall Williams and Claire Keegan. But Ryan has his own emotional range and a way of capturing the largeness of what look like tiny lives but aren’t – as when Saoirse notices her mother at a relative’s wedding and feels “a surge of sadness and love so strong that it winded her.” Reaching the last page, I had the same reaction.

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