It’s not till the last part of this debut short story collection by author Danielle McLaughlin that you reach the title story. If you’ve read all the stories in order (as I did) then you’ll already have a sense of the title’s more complex meaning. It’s a phrase taken from a conversation in one story where a child speculates that if dinosaurs were made extinct after a meteor hit Earth there could still be dinosaurs on other planets. However, a more layered understanding of how this image’s meaning connects with human relationships comes from the interactions of the characters throughout all of the stories. They convey a sensation that, even if we are emotionally destroyed in our own circumscribed existence, other lives still carry on independently. There is a feeling running through many of these varied and skilfully-written tales that the existence of others happens at a far remove from you and your own internal reality. Even if we live in close proximity to each other and especially if we’re in a relationship with someone, the bulk of these other lives remains distinct and private. McLaughlin subtly handles this by creating deeply immersive and compelling stories which show a keen sense of how people relate to each other.
These stories centre on a broad spectrum of people from a university girl to a working class young man to a philandering husband to a grandmother. I admire how the author represents many different classes of Irish society. There is a story about a poor father and daughter who run a mink farm who take extreme actions to secure feed for their livestock. Another story directly references the Irish property bubble where a working mother loses faith in her husband who is searching for a job and she wanders through her decimated community which resembles a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape. The story ‘A Different Country’ shows the divide in understanding between urban dwellers and rural fishermen who take action against seals who meddle with their fishing nets. In ‘All About Alice’ a 45 year old woman feels bound to still live with and care for her father so on the rare occasions he is away she explores her hidden lascivious side. Together these stories form a complex portrait of society made up of different social groups all functioning in relative independence from each other.
McLaughlin also shows a complex understanding of gender. The first story ‘The Art of Foot-Binding’ features a daughter who takes a class project about an antiquated sexist practice to heart using it as a form of self harm because of her own insecurities about her weight. At the same time, her mother Janice emotionally binds herself in another way desperately trying to keep up appearances for her faltering relationship. Interspersed with Janice’s account are instructions about foot-binding coated in a poetic language which perversely emphasizes the barbarity of the practice. The juxtaposition of these instructions with the mother’s story creates a powerful new understanding about the way women have harmed themselves and each other throughout time because of social and misogynistic expectations that they live under.
Other stories present very different kinds of challenges that women face. In ‘Not Oleanders’ a woman named Lily unexpectedly travels abroad in Italy when her companion cancels on her. On the train she meets a younger woman and believes that there is romantic potential between them. Interestingly, this is the first piece of fiction I’ve read that highlights a person’s clavicles as a part of the body to be desired! Because of some wrongfooted signals, there is a tragic misunderstanding. McLaughlin writes a beautiful line about the experience of humiliation: “The humiliation of earlier had faded a little. It would return, of course, as humiliations always did, it would wait for her in the long grass of memory.” I love how this captures the way in which our instances of shame recur in our minds over and over throughout our lives. The character of Aileen in ‘Silhouette’ lives in London but nervously returns to visit her mother in Ireland to tell her she’s pregnant. However, her aged and ailing mother has very traditional narrow values and Aileen is unwed and having an affair with a married man. A girl going to university in ‘The Smell of Dead Flowers’ acts somewhat as an agent of chaos in a household where she submits to a lodger’s sexual advances and distracts her relative from the care of her mentally disabled daughter.
The author writes just as compellingly about struggles particular to men. In ‘Those That I Fight I Do Not Hate’ a married man attends a children’s party for the child of his former lover creating a tense environment for her and her husband. His intentions feel unknown even to himself. The man at the centre of ‘Along the Heron-Studded River’ has a wife with mental health issues who cares for their young child while he’s at work. There is a sense that care and attention for her must be handled delicately or there could be disastrous results. This is represented in a powerful image of him driving across icy pockets of water in wintertime “shattering membranes of ice stretched across the puddles.” In ‘Night of the Silver Fox’ a young man named Gerard finds his burgeoning feelings of romance squashed in the face of hard world economic realities. Throughout all of these diverse stories it’s compelling the way McLaughlin presents such varied portraits of the way gender roles can play into the way we relate to each other.
I first heard about this book when I attended an event chaired by Thomas Morris at the Southbank Centre in London towards the end of last year featuring authors Colin Barrett, Claire-Louise Bennett and Kevin Barry – all part of the so-called Irish New Wave. Barrett mentioned that this is one of the strongest books he’s read recently which made me really intrigued since I admired his debut story collection so much. I found each story in “Dinosaurs on Other Planets” captivating in its own way. McLaughlin has a talent for creating tension in her scenes of everyday reality so that every detail reflects deeper stories of hidden affairs, desperation, financial insecurity or love that has gone sour. I felt compelled to go back to the beginning of some stories after I finished them and reread them now that I had a fuller understanding of the characters. This is the mark of great fiction as these stories have real depth which isn’t immediately apparent. They are also so entertaining and beautifully-written that they made me want to spend more time with them. As this is only a debut collection, I think Danielle McLaughlin demonstrates tremendous skill and confidence in her writing. This is definitely a book to be savoured.