“Probably amongst the best collections – if not the best collection – we’re destined to read all year” – Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin
Since we last checked in with Danielle McLaughlin – see our review of the Davy Byrne’s Stories 2014 anthology – her star’s been rising: Dinosaurs on Other Planets, her debut collection, was first printed by the ever-prescient The Stinging Fly Press late in 2015, and it’s since been picked up by John Murray, the UK operation that, we’re ever more convinced, has its thumb firmly pressed on the pulse of up-and-comers from o’er the sea. They’re certainly backing a winner here: you couldn’t pluck a more accomplished collection from the shelves if you were to go bobbing for Alice Munro’s.
So – if you’re a regular reader (or a clicker of links) you’ll have seen our coverage of the book’s eponymous story, which first saw the light in, wait for it, The New Yorker. We’re pretty happy to concur with Deborah Triesman & co on this one; as we put it last time, this is ‘domestic realism at its best’. Even at this early stage in her publishing career, McLaughlin’s already nailed the art of the understated yet massively resonant detail; in a story in which nothing, really, happens at all, we see the germination of an entire family’s doom – children drifting further away from parents, partners isolated from one another, old age creeping in… But what’s more impressive is that each story in the book is just as strong as this one – she’s definitely far from coasting on an outlier.
In the opener, ‘The Art of Foot-Binding’, we see another family in crisis – a recurring theme – as the mother, Janice, struggles to deal with a surly teenage daughter who’s taken to (yup) binding her feet. But it’s not as simple as a teen-angst-and-parental-frustration riff: behind the scenes, Janice’s marriage is failing, and the three-way pull between the characters results in a complex web of emotion that’s as heartbreaking as it is realistic. In ‘Those That I Fight I Do Not Hate’ (a New Yorker title if ever we heard one), we get a snapshot of another catastrophic marriage – an unelaborated-upon job loss, an old affair that’s not fully detailed, hostility in the suburbs, and all in the context of a child’s First Communion party. Innocence alongside desperation and half-recalled betrayals – and the ending is subtly horrific. ‘All About Alice’ features a different kind of desperation – the titular character’s backstory emerges as she seduces a younger man while her elderly father’s away on holidays. No spoilers, because the revelation’s a great one, but McLaughlin’s skill in making us empathize with Alice is enormously impressive, and the story’s got a manic, futile energy that matches that of the maddened bluebottles Alice’s dad bludgeons to death with his newspaper.
Although unhappiness and familial discord are repeated concerns in the book, McLaughlin isn’t peddling an exclusively miserable deal: ‘Along the Heron-Studded River’ introduces us to a guy whose wife is suffering from what seems to be a severe case of post-natal depression, but, although it’s certainly full of tension and despair, it’s ultimately a really touching picture of love and tenderness. ‘Night of the Silver Fox’ is also, in many ways, deeply depressing, but it’s also got a female lead who’s got the spirit and steel of Sarah Hall’s girls in ‘Butcher’s Perfume’; the act that (we presume) she performs to stave off her father’s financial ruin isn’t one you’d wish for her, sure, but it’s also one she does out of love, with defiance, and with an intelligence and cunning that’s entirely missing amongst her male counterparts.
The remaining stories are just as memorable: a woman goes on the holiday she should have gone on with her ex-girlfriend, and mistakes a friendly gesture for a romantic overture; another woman oversees her mother’s final days; a trip to visit family opens up a gulf between a pair of lovers; a young girl lodges with her mother’s cousin, the cousin’s disabled daughter, and an ex-philosophy-student who may or may not be sleeping with his landlady; a husband and wife try to renegotiate their lives after the financial crash when he’s out of work and their son is getting close to a local evangelist who looks like Angeline Jolie.
Complaints? We can’t honestly say we’ve got any worth airing. The interstitial notes on foot-binding in the first story feel, perhaps, a little artificial, but that’s picking hairs to an unholy degree. There are, as we suggested, recurrent themes here, but there’s no template: these stories are utterly distinct and individually mesmerizing. The language is elegant, the voices ring clear, the imagery is vivid: in ‘A Different Country’, the main character is in awe of her partner’s sister-in-law, a woman who’s ‘good-looking in a raw, violent sort of way’, who reminds her of ‘girls propped against alley walls, taking boys like bullets’.
Any Cop?: God, yes. Probably amongst the best collections – if not the best collection – we’re destined to read all year. Buy multiple copies, get them signed, say you heard about it here.