A Guest Post by Ethel Rohan
Irish Short Story Week Year Two
March 11 to July 1
All About Danielle McLaughlin
The recently released spring issue of The Stinging Fly, one of Ireland’s premier literary magazines, introduced me to the wonderful work of Cork-based writer, Danielle McLaughlin. The issue contains her marvelous short story, “All About Alice.” It’s perhaps an occupational hazard of writers to read while simultaneously studying and critiquing a work, but “All About Alice” so grabbed me from the first sentence I read rapt, unconscious of author and craft, and only aware of my delight in the story, my awe at its suspense, and my deep sympathy for its protagonist, Alice.
Here begins “All About Alice”:
August was heavy with dying bluebottles. They gathered in velvety-blue droves on the window panes and beat their gauzy wings against the glass. They squatted black and languid along the sills. Alice slouched low in an armchair in the kitchen, watching her father’s curious ballet. The bottoms of his trousers, rolled high above his ankles, unfurled a little further with every stumbling jeté. His newspaper carved frantic circles in the air as he struck at the flies.
‘Feckers,’ he shouted. ‘Hoors.’
Alice is forty-two years old, single, childless, and living back at home with her widowed father. Alice is also living with the guilt and shame of past mistakes and a public scandal. At the story’s opening, Alice’s father is about to embark on a bus ride to West Cork, to holiday with his cousin. Alice is giddy with anticipation at getting the house to herself for an entire week. During her father’s weeklong absence, Alice commits many acts of delinquency and defiance, some of which are humorous and most of which are heartbreaking, and all of which speak to her poignant search for love, forgiveness, acceptance, and belonging—a quest made almost impossible in a harsh, judgmental, and gossip-poisoned town.
While my first read of this story hung onto the sheer joy of tale and suspense, and was fueled by the need to get to the conclusion, my subsequent reads of “All About Alice” focused on trying to figure out just how McLaughlin so beautifully crafted and rendered this moving and memorable story. The voice, tone, and pacing in “All About Alice” seem perfect. There isn’t a beat wasted or missing. The three big ‘Ds’ of details, descriptions, and dialogue are telling and serve to both reveal character and progress plot. Case in point here, in the first scene between our protagonist, Alice, and her ‘best’ friend, Marian. The scene opens with Marian speaking:
‘It’s not all romance, you know, Alice. You’re thinking, there’s Marian with her perfect house and her perfect husband and a brand new Fiesta outside the door. Well, I’ll be straight with you Alice, since you’ve asked: it’s not all moonlight and roses.’
Alice was fairly sure she hadn’t asked.
This pithy, humorous, and excellently drawn exchange reveals much about both characters and the strained dynamics between them.
Alice, like all the characters in this story, is real, flawed, and complex. Yet look at what she thinks and feels as we come to the close of that first scene between her and Marian:
Instead, [Alice] looked across the table at Marian, at the dark circles beneath her eyes, the greasy hair, the baby-sick on her cardigan. She saw with sudden clarity the desolate wasteland of her friend’s ruin and, just as clearly, saw it mirror her own. She felt the sun wane, felt the evening and the kitchen closing in.
Such moments of empathy, of aching need, and grasps at connection are threaded throughout the story. Here’s the opening to one of the final and pivotal scenes:
In the semidarkness of Jarlath’s bedroom, Alice lay on her back. She saw a large amoeba-shaped stain on the ceiling and on top of the wardrobe, an orange traffic cone. Downstairs, two young men that Jarlath shared the house with had turned the music up louder. Jarlath lay next to her, his jeans still around his ankles. The music stopped downstairs and for a while there was silence except for the sound of a car going by on the street outside. Alice was overcome by a deadly urge to talk.
It’s difficult to resist the urge to quote this entire story—it’s that good. The feeling of guilt, need for forgiveness, and search for parental and romantic love in this story deeply resonated. Amazingly, I identified with and felt sympathy for each and every character here, from Alice’s befuddled, routine-ruined father; the sad specter of her mother; her threadbare, self-centered friend; her fumbling, confused love interest, and even, my God even, the wife who still lives in the big house across the river. You have to trust me on the brilliance of the latter, at least until you read the story and discover why for yourself. I especially admired how McLaughlin manages to resurrect Alice’s dead mother on the page, revealing her to us through vivid detail and nuanced, subtle, and skillfully placed backstory. This moment hit me straight in the chest:
[Alice] got a cloth and dusted her mother’s photograph. 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.’
Despite my sharing several quotes here and revealing some of the plot, there is so much more to this concise, gorgeous, and brilliant story that I haven’t divulged. I won’t forget Alice or her author. Alice is the type of character I think about long after I’ve finished the story. I love that while Alice is miserable and suffering, she’s not powerless or a victim. And while she feels trapped, she’s proactive and not without hope. There’s this wonderful and heartbreaking sense that Alice will never stop trying in life and in love, and I find I’m cheering her on and wishing the same love and goodness for her as I wish for all of us. I’ve been called a compassionate, empathetic writer. However, Danielle McLaughlin’s story here makes me feel wholly inadequate and goads me to try ever harder. I urge you to buy a copy of The Stinging Fly and read this story for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.
I should also note that coincidentally, wonderfully, this issue contains a second story with another unforgettable and sympathetic protagonist named Alice. Mary Costello’s short story here, “The Sewing Room,” is another must-read and another story that at its end made me feel both gratefully enriched and sorely bereft.
As a contributor to this issue of The Stinging Fly, I received two complimentary copies. I’m happy to give away my second copy. Email me at ethelrohan at gmail dot com. First request received wins. I only ask that if the recipient feels as impressed and excited by this issue as I did, you please give a shout out to The Stinging Fly in some format, be it Twitter, Facebook, your blog or website etc. Thank you.
Ethel Rohan is the author of Hard to Say, PANK, 2011 and Cut Through the Bone, Dark Sky Books, 2010, the latter longlisted for The Story Prize. Her work has or will appear in World Literature Today, The Irish Times, The Chattahoochee Review, The Los Angeles Review, Southeast Review Online, Potomac Review, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in fiction from Mills College, California. Raised in Ireland, Ethel Rohan now lives in San Francisco. Visit her at ethelrohan.com.
End of Guest Post
I recently read Ethel Rohan's short story "Beast and the Bear" (in fact I have now read it five times) and was completely blown away by it. I am very grateful for this guest review of a fascinating story. I will be returning to her work numerous times before Irish Short Story Week finally comes to an end on July 1. There are links to "Beast and the Bear" and several other stories on her webpage.
Her books are available as Kindle and paperback editions for a very fair prize on Amazon.