I first encountered the work of Danielle McLaughlin during an extended Irish Short Story month in July of 2012 when I read her prize winning short story "Bewitched". At that time I had included her as one of the writers featured in my Emerging Irish Women Writers segment. I went on to post over the next few years on several more of her stories, Ethel Rohan kindly did a guest post on one of McLaughlin's short stories. I am very proud of the Q and A session in which McLaughlin graciously and insightfully responded to my question.
Now four years later with two short stories published in The New Yorker and a collection of her short stories, Dinosaurs On Other Planets recently published by The Stinging Fly I feel safe in saying she has way transcended the category in which I, with scant knowledge of what I was doing,placed her.
I find posting on collections of short stories quite challenging. My method is to post on some of the stories in the collection,then try to make remarks about what the stories might be said to have in common concluding with my thoughts on who might enjoy and appreciate the collection. For those who want cut to the bottom line,I highly recommend this collection to all lovers of the form.
The Art of Footbinding
"The Art of Footbinding" is the lead story in the collection. The story begins with a quotation from a manual on traditional Chinese Footbinding. My first thought was to wonder how this will be connected to the plot. The plot opens with a woman returning home. The cleaning lady has just finished and the house has an overly antiseptic feel. We soon learn that the teacher of her teenage daughter is introducing the students to Footbinding. The interlaced descriptions of Footbinding are calmly horrific. I begin to wonder is the process of school and middle class upbringing a kind of Footbinding meant to limit the horizons of the daughter. We learn in just a few pages about the dynamics of the family. The ending was very powerful. It is, among other things, a coda on parenting.
Those That I Fight I Do Not Hate
The second story in the collection, "Those I Fight I Do Not Hate", a famous line from Yeats, is a closely observed domestic story taking place at party for a girl in her late teens. It is an awkward occasion. The central figure in the story is Kevin and his exwife at whose house,once theirs,the party is held. She lives there now with her new husband Bob and her daughter. Bob collects W W One air war memorabilia. McLaughlin's interplay of this and the family drama between Kevin, his exwife and their daughter is brilliant. Kevin is now out of work and has been so a while. The man who made him redundant is there adding to the undercurrent of pain. Kevin has to smile through the patronizing attitudes of those who ask if has yet found work. Like many a father, he struggles to see his daughter grow into a woman. There are a lot of complex emotions in story,a minatture master work that for me echoed the influence of Kstherine Mansfield. Like the prior story, a teenage girl,plays a kind of intermediary role in a troubled marriage. I read it three times and it really should be read twice at least.
All About Alice
"All About Alice" is truly great story, shockingly powerful.
On the strength of it alone,I would say buy this collection. Alice is 45, unmarried, ives with her elderly widowed father. Her dad is getting ready to leave for his annual outing with his cousin Olive. Alice cherishes this time alone where she can do whatever she likes for a week without having to explain her comings and goings to her father. Alice goes to visit her friend,a married woman. The friend tells her married life is not all fun and games.
jShe suggests Alice try to meet a man while her father is gone. She tells her maybe she needs to go to Dublin to find one. She tells Alice to come to the barbecue she is hosting for her husband's soccer team. There will be men there and " no need to tell them how old you are". Alice meets what seems aMiddle Eastern man at the party. Without being asked, she gives him her number. He never calls and the story takes an amazing turn when Alice decides to stalk him at soccer practice. I hope you will read this story and marvel at the ending as much as I did. I think it tells a lot about the Irish attitude toward sex.
Night of the Silver Foxes
"Night of the Silver Foxes, story five, tells a story centering around the mink farm industry in rural Ireland. If you ever had an interest in having a mink coat, after reading this story you will probably be repelled by the thought. Our story begins in a truck on a road in rural Iteland delivering fish meal to a mink farm. The young man driving is the son of the fish meal company owner. With him is his helper, an old friend. It is a hard dirty business that seems to leave you permanently smelling of fish. The helper has not been paid for three weeks and likewise the mink farm they are on the way to has not paid in three weeks. This time the plan is cash upfront or no delivery. The wife of them mink farm left the farm owner and their daughter for another man years ago. The depiction of the farm is totally perfect, the story exactly exemplifies the impact of a weak Irish father on his daughter. The ending is just so sad, beautiful heartbreak. This is a story that will stay with me.
Dinosaurs On Other Planets
"Dinosaurs On Other Planets, is the collection's title story. It was previously published in The New Yorker. "Dinosaurs On Other Planets" is set in rural Ireland. In just a few pages McLaughli does a masterful job of letting us see many years of family dynamics. One of the things one sees through out Irish literature is the treatment of the surface emotional reticence of the Irish. You can see this in Dubliners and Patrick Kavanagh's majestic poem, "The Great Hunger". "Dinosaurs On Other Planets" is in this great tradition. The story is set at the home of a long married couple. The wife is fifty one, the husband much older. He is retired and spends a lot of time wood working. They have not slept together for a year and are living in London.
The daughter is coming with her son and her new boyfriend for a visit. The parents don't want her or their grandson to know they are estranged. There is no hate, the passion, if there ever was much, is gone. I don't want to reveal more of the plot. I think you will enjoy finding out what the story has to do with dinosaurs on other planets, I did.
Declain Kiberd has said the dominant theme of modern Irish literature is that of the weak or missing Irish father. In my opinion this story exemplifies this. Mclaugkin talks about this in her Q and A. It is treated in several of the stories in this collection as well as other of her stories.
In the Act of Falling
In my reading of Irish literature I have been very influenced by Declan Kiberd's monumental work, Inventing Ireland - The Literature of the Modern Nation. Kiberd helped me see modern Irish literature, post George Moore and Dubliners through the post colonial perspective developed by Edward Said and Franz Fanon. Kiberd's central thesis is that the basic core theme of modern Irish literature is that of the weak or missing father. I was very intrigued to see the figure of the weak father playing a central part in McLaughlin's story "In the Act of Falling".
One of the other themes I find in the stories of McLaughlin is that of the cultural impact of the intersection of people from very different worlds. We see that in "All About Alice"
We see this in "Midnight at Ali's King Kehab Takeaway" and "The Governor's Gin", you can find links to these stories in my prior posts on McLaughlin. Sometimes lonely isolates become attracted to the occult or visions of an alternative apocalyptic world which takes them out of a world they don't like and don't succeed in or fit in well. This is in several of her stories. This ties in with the theme of the missing father, manifesting itself as an eroding cultural base. "In the Act of Falling" is set in the recession that followed the fall of the Irish economy, just about ten years ago. All you have to do is to take a quick scan of the economic and political headlines about Ireland to see a vision of a country whose leaders, the politicians and the Catholic Church, have failed.
I don't want to give away much of the plot of this very rich story. The story centers on an Irish married couple with one son, maybe ten. The father was recently made redundant from a decent job and now just plays the role of house husband and kind of pretends to look for job. McLaughlin does just a wonderful job of showing us how this impacts their marriage as the wife becomes the only earner and the husband spirals into a cocoon of odd near occult preoccupations.
Omnimously looming over the marriage but lurking way in the background, is a mysterious woman and a sinister seeming man who are working their way into the psyche of the man. His condition as a weakened father has left him vulnerable to darker realities or fantasies than he otherwise might have been. An excellent edition to the great tradition of the Irish short story.
You can read this story HERE
A Different Country
"A Different Country" by Danielle McLaughlin is a very powerful story centering on the visit of a woman from Dubin, in the company of her boyfriend, to his family home in rural Ireland. Both are university students. She seems to be a Dublin person. They are visiting his brother and his pregnant girlfriend, almost ready to deliver. The woman feels left out as the talk turns to people from her boyfriend's past. They are on the Irish seacoast, one of the world's most beautiful places. The opening lines of the story,quoted above, have an the almost overpowering beauty, especially for an urban person, marvelously captured. Rural life is not all basking in the beauty. In a very dramatic scene the woman sees and may join in a violent hunt for seals, who steal catches from the nets of fisherman.
The stiry breems with life, from the near to birth girl friend to the potential deadly sea. The woman begins to see her boyfriend in a different way as she gradually goes from a Dublin university accent to a country one.
There are four other stories in the collection, all first rate.
Dinosaurs From Other Planets is a collection any lover of short stories will cherish. The Irish are the masters of the short story and McLaughlin is in the tradition begun by James Joyce's Dubliners. Like the stories of the great John McGahern her stories are mostly set in rural Ireland. Several of her stories deal with the very Irish theme of the weak father. She deals with strains in relationships in a very insightful fashion. Her stories very rooted in the Irish countryside but the themes are universal.
I give this collection my highest endorsement. These are stories you can read slowly and let the exquisite prose flow over you while the characters sink into your consciousness. As I read these stories I felt the contrast between the wonderfully rendered beauty of rural Ireland and the deadly traps set for the people. In the stories focusing on the young, i wonder if any will escape. For sure these stories will make you think.
I look forward to following Danielle McLaughlin for many years.
Author Bio- from Webpage of West Cork Literary Festival
Danielle McLaughlin’s stories have appeared in various journals, newspapers and anthologies, including The New Yorker, The Irish Times, Southword, The Penny Dreadful, Long Story Short and The Stinging Fly. They have also appeared in various anthologies, such as the Bristol Prize Anthology, the Fish Anthology and the 2014 Davy Byrnes Anthology, and have been broadcast on RTE Radio 1 and BBC Radio 4. She has won various awards for her short fiction, including the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen International Short Story Competition, the From the Well Short Story Competition, The Willesden Herald International Short Story Prize, The Merriman Short Story Competition in memory of Maeve Binchy, and the Dromineer Literary Festival Short Story Competition. Danielle was awarded an Arts Council Bursary in 2013. Her debut collection of short stories, Dinosaurs On Other Planets, was published in Ireland in 2015 by The Stinging Fly Press and in the UK in 2016 by John Murray. The collection was shortlisted for the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards 2015 in the Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year category. She lives in County Cork with her husband and three young children and is currently working on a number of new short stories and a novel.