‘Something Else Entirely’
Dinosaurs on Other Planets
by Danielle McLaughlin
(208pp, John Murray, hardback £14.99, ISBN 978 1 473 613706)
Good writers rely on style. Great writers rely on empathy, revealing something essential about who and why we are. Mining the psycho-geography of small towns and rural Ireland from Portlaoise to Balleyphehane, Danielle McLaughlin’s debut collection edges her towards the latter category. In the opening story, The Art of Foot Binding, a character asks, ‘Did you ever think our lives would turn out like this?’ It’s a question that sets the tone for eleven works in which cruelty and care are situated a hair’s breadth apart.
McLaughlin belongs to a new breed of Irish writer and, more specifically, female Irish writer whose outspokeness has been hazarded by author Kevin Barry as ‘a proper radicalism’. Writers who, swerving from traditional touchstones of exile, artistic restraint, poverty, famine and church (subjects labelled scathingly by Anne Enright as ‘Grand Ireland’), are detailing contemporary Ireland in all its recent diffuse angst and economic instability.
Owing its spirit as much to Flannery O’Connor and Alice Munro as William Trevor and Anne Enright, McLaughlin’s writing possesses an impressive degree of maturity for someone who had a mid-life career change. She hadn’t published a word before her 40s. Yet the author’s previous grounding as a lawyer, with its proximity to courtroom theatre and linguistic rigour, explains her precision in detailing the tensions in relationships. Dented by life, characters rub uneasily against each other, missing some vital social cues and wilfully ignoring others, ultimately defined as much by the negative spaces between them as by jolting connection. In Not Oleanders, Etta, a twenty-something would-be suitor for ‘battle-scarred, fraying around the edges’ Lily, is too gauche to understand that ‘Life, after all, was mostly the art of salvage.’ Louise, the first person narrator in The Smell of Dead Flowers, realises only many years later the true meaning of her aunt’s expression as she gazed from the bedroom window, an expression understood by the story’s end as ‘something else entirely’.
Death shapes the collection, specifically the death of animals; a trail of ducks, crows, fish, puppies, mink, seals, crabs, bluebottles, dragonflies, moths, sheep and chickens pile up by its end. McLaughlin says she ‘had an obsession with dead things; insects, birds and animals’ as a young child. Her characters fare little better, yet despite a slew of affairs, mental breakdowns, spontaneous prostitution, alcoholism, dying mothers and learning disabilities, they avoid reading as overwrought. And among the many bruising, quotidian sorrows, beauty emerges with rawness. An argumentative teenager is ‘dismayed, confused, scorched by the life sap bubbling up through her’. Park ducks, mysteriously lifeless, are described as ‘lying on a muddy bank, their jewelled heads pressing beak-shaped indents into the silt.’
Rarely used, metaphor, when utilised, homes in on the body with queasy precision; girls from a rough estate are ‘propped against alley walls, taking boys like bullets’, skin has the ‘waxy, pinched look of a museum doll’, breasts are likened to ‘two small oranges’, nipples as ‘little hard pips’, while pregnant Aileen in Silhouette, reading an article about German ‘baby hatches’, imagines babies plopping into warm darkness,’the occasional soft cracking of skulls like eggs’.
Occasionally an imprecision with language surfaces, while some endings err on the stagey side, yet these are minor shadings. Mostly, the author’s crisp yet comma-rich prose style balances a novel’s leisurely breath with the short story’s tart density. Ali Smith has suggested the latter form’s tension results from the reader’s awareness in its imminent end – an end closer in sight than the novel. ‘With the short story,’ she has written, ‘you are up against mortality’. Death is always around the corner. Within this context, the largesse of animal corpses in Dinosaurs on Other Planets sits comfortably.
This review was first published in the TLS in May 2016