Fractured family relationships form the heart of Danielle McLaughlin’s debut collection, 11 short stories shot through with moments of sadness, longing, and resignation.
The tone is set in “The Art of Foot Binding”, in which a mother attempts to reconcile her differences with her difficult teenage daughter. When she confronts her daughter’s teacher, the convincingly smug Ms Matthews, she breaks down, forced to acknowledge the deeper problems in her life which she has failed to address.
The theme of refusing to face difficult truths – often due to spoiled romance – recurs throughout the book.
There are moments of acute observation, in which the familiar is rendered strange, illustrating the emotional disconnection which the characters are at pains to ignore. The men and women in these stories frequently find themselves in unfamiliar rooms, only to find themselves confronted by their own lives.
“In the spare room, the coats lay on the bed in a writhing mass of empty sleeves.” Kevin has been in this house before, when he shouldn’t have been, and he knows he is unwelcome. His host is mistrustful, and locks the door of the spare room behind him, as Kevin pretends to run an errand to get out of the house.
There is very little resolution for anyone, and unexpected narrative turns rarely offer hope.
Dead insects tumble from the pages. “August was heavy with dying bluebottles,” “The lid sprung open when it hit the floor, depositing a foul-smelling, ash-like substance onto the carpet. I bent to examine it and found that it was the remains of dead insects, dozens and dozens of them, shrivelled and desiccated,” “She tipped the bucket over, spilling the bleach onto the ground. For a second it lay upon the surface, before gradually seeping away until only a flotsam of dead insects speckled the stones.”
Images of death are ever-present: in the insect corpses, dead flowers, the inexplicable cull of ducks in St Stephen’s Green. If the relationships are fractured, the world is awash with rotting debris, but only once or twice does the spectre of death touch the characters. When its shadow looms, it is shocking, but not altogether unexpected.
The Ireland presented here is familiar, and beautifully rendered, in some of its detail.
“There was a mahogany chest of drawers with ornate carvings that must have come from a bigger, grander house. Squares of faded linen were folded on top, next to a family of blue china elephants. The room smelled of things put away, of dust laid down on dust.”
“The room had a wounded look, a sense of damage inflicted from myriad tiny skirmishes over many years. It was heavy with furniture: as well as the dining table and chairs there was a tallboy with dusty cacti, a nest of tables piled with out-of-date telephone directories; glass-fronted cupboards crammed with yellowing silverware.”
We know these spaces, and the people who populate them.
“Poor Mammy. She had gone downhill very quickly while Alice was away, everyone had said so. Alice had come back to a straw woman. Pneumonia, it had said on the death cert. It might just as well have said ‘Alice’.”
“She reminded Sarah of the girls from the estates in Castlebar when she went to visit her cousins in the summer; girls in the backyard of pubs after closing time, resting half-finished pints on empty kegs; girls propped against alley walls, taking boys like bullets.”
“This was her mother’s latest pastime: scrutinising Eily’s ancestry. Each new fragment was committed to memory to be dissected in Eily’s absence, inconsistencies hunted down with a doggedness usually reserved for war criminals.”
What renders these stories exceptional are both the level of close observation which McLaughlin affords the otherwise overlooked characters who populate them, and the unflinching lack of sentiment with which the awkward details of these half-lives are captured.
An uncompromising and assured exploration of disappointment.
Dinosaurs on Other Planets (Dublin: The Stinging Fly Press, October 2015)