Our reviewer on a dazzling new voice emerging in Irish writing
The first step to a good short story is that it can be read in one uninterrupted sitting. The second is that it knows and respects the rules of conventional story telling. And the third, and most important, is that it knows exactly when to break these rules. Cork writer Danielle McLaughlin has mastered these steps. She has already achieved that short story holy grail of being published in one of the most prestigious international magazines, The New Yorker, not just once but twice. And all before her debut collection of stories Dinosaurs on Other Planets has been released.
McLaughlin’s brilliantly fragmentary ‘In the Act of Falling’ is in the September 7 edition of The New Yorker. It tells the story of a woman suddenly realising how far her family has disintegrated, an abrupt waking up as if to a familial apocalypse but one that has been slowly unravelling all around her. And the theme of apocalypse is at its heart, as Finn, her nine-year-old son, has developed a morbid fascination with death and disease; he sets out tennis nets horizontally to catch the dead birds that will soon be falling from the sky.
As with a number of stories in this important new collection, there is a sense of our protagonist having reached her tipping point. We know that the future will now be changed utterly by whatever her next step might be. And, intriguingly, we often don’t know what that next step will be.
McLaughlin’s writing is so captivating and visual that you are instantly in the story from the first paragraph. She knows just the right amount of information to give, almost frustrating us with the unknowns, but providing enough suggestions and clues to keep us going. She opens with ‘The Art of Foot-Binding’, one of the strongest stories of this very strong compilation. It is perfectly balanced as it tells the story of Janice, mother to a daughter who is developing teenage obsessions that are even less healthy than the average teenager and wife to a husband who has strayed from her in every sense, but she cannot let go. As with all of these works, McLaughlin conveys so much with so little.
These are placeless stories but with the occasional Irish flourish. We meet Kevin at an excruciating first communion party in Ranelagh as he desperately tries to be reunited with the naggin of vodka that had been in the breast pocket of the coat that was removed from him upon arrival. And even the most heavily Irish, set in the mist sodden Limerick fields of Abbeyfeale, reach beyond an Irish mindset to connect with something that is universally human.
McLaughlin’s characters are often outsiders, looking in on a world that they may be part of but must learn to negotiate with caution and respect. And she has cleverly left the title story until the very end, a winner that also appeared in The New Yorker, and a story that is very typical of her style. It is about a couple in a later stage in their relationship who have little contact with their daughter and even less with their young grandson, trying to forge some kind of last minute bond when there is an unexpected visit home.
All of these stories do possess a heart of darkness. This is sometimes just a passing ghost of bleak shadow, in others it is a bitter twist of the knife, and there are moments entrenched in tragic grief. Some of the stories are unexpectedly brutal, viscerally so, depicting atrocities such as seal killing. But sometimes too there is almost hope.