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Elske Rahill’s debut novel, Between Dog and Wolf divided critics. Most admired her brave, unflinching take on gender, sexuality, and the reality of everyday life for young Irelanders in the post-boom, Internet-obsessed era.
One critic even went as far as hailing Rahill as “an intriguing and definitive voice of a new generation of Irish writers”. Others, however, saw the potential in Rahill’s work, but noted that there was room for development in terms of style, structure, and language choice. They wanted to see what she’d do next.
It’s been four years from that first novel to her debut short-story collection, In White Ink. The time and experience that has gone into her writing process is evident. This is a much more assured and complete piece of writing.
It is easy to tell when a writer has spent time with a short story, allowing it to develop and mature at its own speed. These are stories that feel as if they were written slowly and with a great deal of consideration for the characters.
Rahill writes best when she turns her attention to unpicking small, domestic incidents – a dog with a never-ending dose of fleas, a young women’s concern for her suicidal brother, a girls’ night in gone horribly wrong – in order to reveal huge chasms of human anxiety and hurt, just below the surface.
Her dialogue is rich and believable and the inner world of her characters is neurotic in the very best and most intriguing sense. Consequently, the stories that are strongest here have simple plot lines and wonderfully nuanced, complex characters.
I struggled a little with “Dolls” and “Right to Reply”. Both seemed needlessly bogged down in backstory, and could have been pared back a little to let the characters breathe.
Many of the themes tackled in Between Dog and Wolf – relationships, fertility, sexuality, motherhood – are once again present in In White Ink. With a few exceptions, most of these stories are also focused on life in contemporary Ireland.
However, there’s such an empathetic understanding of how human beings will respond to a crisis in the domestic sphere, a relationship breakdown, status anxiety, or a particularly hideous experience at the hairdresser, that these stories could easily be set in just about any moderate-sized Western city.
At almost 300 pages, In White Ink is large by the standards of contemporary short-story collections, and yet, there is something about reading a story that unfolds over 50 pages that forces the reader to invest in a character and the slow unpeeling of their trauma.
This is particularly evident in the title story, where the narrator is a young mother, directly addressing the child she feels forced to lose contact with. By the time the actual separation occurs, some 45 pages in, such is the reader’s attachment to the narrator that it is impossible not to feel her loss as a personal bereavement.
Childbirth and motherhood are repeated themes throughout In White Ink. Rahill has three children herself and clearly takes inspiration from her own personal experience.
Her characters are overly aware of their bodies. The physical details of carrying, birthing and nursing a child are described in visceral, striking detail. Indeed there is a pervading physicality to the way Rahill writes about these small, bodily intimacies associated with relationships.
Sex is described with brusque objectivity. Characters appear almost removed from themselves when they describe their own physicality, and often seem quicker to identify with haircuts, make-up, and the trappings of personal appearance, than their emotional core.
Despite the fact that she is more glamorous and successful than all her female peers, Kathleen, the wife in “A Wife”, has the emotional maturity of a teenage girl. Rahill reveals this lack at the core of her character with incredible restraint and subtlety, describing all the fluffy details of a girls’ night in, and leaving enough room for the reader to perceive Kathleen’s insecurity turning all the niceness sour. This, for me, was the stand-out story in the collection.
The title story is also remarkable. Rahill employs a beautifully lyrical narrative voice as she delves deep into the anxiety of a young mother’s loss. Her metaphors are particularly apt and punchy when she writes about women and their children.
There is a parent/child relationship at the heart of all these stories, from Valerie, struggling to develop maternal feelings in “Toby”, to the young mother in “Bride” who is conflicted about her husband’s interest in child pornography.
While motherhood is repeatedly portrayed as a bond more intimate and life-giving than the sexual relationships between her adult characters, Rahill is also at pains to present this as a universally problematic relationship.
All her mothers are struggling to communicate honestly with their offspring. All feel lacking in some vital aspect. As a result, there’s a kind of yearning, sadness running like a fault line through the entire collection.
Most of the stories seem to hinge upon the sense of distance that begins to develop at the point of birth. Or, as the narrator of “In White Ink” more eloquently puts it, “your life is a journey out of me”.
There’s a certain amount of repetitiveness here. I lost track of how many descriptions of new babies I’d read, but the writing is so crisp and poignant, and there are so many ways in which Rahill approaches her pet themes, that this is still a collection that held me captive throughout.
[Editor’s note: Elske Rahill is a regular contributor to Dublin Inquirer.]