The fallout from Ireland’s boom and bust permeates this thrilling collection of short stories
There is currently a thrilling, seemingly unstoppable tide of new Irish writing emerging through small literary magazines and presses, with authors such as Sara Baume, Colin Barrett and Mary Costello going on to achieve widespread critical success. Joining them this year will surely be Danielle McLaughlin, whose short stories are set in an Ireland both contemporary and disturbingly unfamiliar. Her near-faultless debut collection, originally published by Stinging Fly, deals primarily with psychological alienation, and the desolate upheaval of humans in crisis.
The adroit placement of many of these dramas away from big city life, in small towns and rural areas – from Cork to Donegal to the particular stretch of the Irish Midlands beloved of John McGahern – acutely highlights the way present-day disaffection extends well beyond the metropolis. In “Along the Heron-Studded River” creeping suspense is sustained as a man, relocated with his family to the remote countryside while commuting to a fractious city office, tries desperately to keep watch over his bipolar wife who has sole daily care of their young daughter. The promise of a new beginning, the first sighting of their house a couple of years before, held an unreal aspect even then: “the farmland all around them in folds of white hills like a bridal gown, jewelled with frost. ‘Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?’ Cathy had whispered. ‘It’s like Narnia’.”
A parallel story, “In the Act of Falling”, reverses roles – the harassed, reluctant breadwinner wife driving into Dublin each day leaving her recently unemployed husband, Bill, and their small son, Finn, excluded from school for antisocial behaviour, to their own evasive devices. A sinister scenario unfolds with Finn, a singular child obsessed with dead animals and the end of days, coming under the influence of a travelling preacher with apocalyptic visions, while Bill, his high-flying career behind him, distracts himself by leafing though expensive art books they can ill afford. The eerie setup, of a formerly grand house and its incumbent life, now susceptible to material dilapidation and worse, is reminiscent of Elizabeth Bowen, or Maeve Brennan’s gothic leanings, with a modern twist. “The wasteland next door had once formed part of the house’s extensive grounds. The developer, having no use for the house itself, had fenced it off and sold it, together with an acre of garden. When she and Bill had first viewed it, there had been a pair of tall, wrought-iron gates at the end of the drive, but by the time they moved in, the gates were gone, taken, she learned later, by a creditor of the builder’s.”
This pervasive undercurrent, the fallout from Ireland’s boom and bust, permeates the book. “Night of the Silver Fox” promises potential joy for naive teenage worker Gerard, but a late-night visit with his bumptious employer to the owner of a debt-ridden mink farm and his serpentine daughter ends in a cold-hearted transaction he could not have envisaged.
The more sophisticated but, as it turns out, just as woefully innocent Sarah finds herself – literally – in dangerous waters in “A Different Country”, when she spends a weekend with new boyfriend Jonathan, his brother Aidan and Aidan’s heavily pregnant partner, Pauline, in their ramshackle house in coastal Donegal. Lustrous Pauline, a siren with chipped nails and blue-black hair, unsettles from the off, persistently referring to a shared past between her and “Johnny” hitherto undisclosed to Sarah. More disquieting still are the brothers’ illegal nocturnal activities, about which they are horrifically matter-of-fact. “She felt a small, quiet panic rise up inside of her. It was the panic of a swimmer, who has drifted out, little by little, on a rogue current, and who suddenly discovers herself to be far from shore.”
Beached and helpless like Sarah, McLaughlin’s characters can nevertheless articulate their alarm, wonder and ultimately acceptance of their shifting, nondescript place in the universe. And none more so than middle-aged Kate in the title story: a wife but no longer a lover, a mother and grandmother unsure of her role. Her initial tremulous hesitancy and final stoic resignation are a fitting finish to a quietly dazzling collection: “There were stars, millions of them, the familiar constellations she’d known since childhood. They were white-hot clouds of dust and gas, and the light, if you got close, would blind you.”