The final paragraph of the titular story of this collection includes the following two sentences: “Putting down the bucket, she gazed up at the night sky. There were stars, millions of them, the familiar constellations she had known since childhood.” Among the countless hopeful new writers in the Irish literary scene, Danielle McLaughlin soars above the majority with this collection of short stories. With prose that borders on simplistic, McLaughlin manages to deftly capture a wide range of human emotions and actions. With artful construction, McLaughlin manipulates her readers to be drawn in, to continually turn the pages until they finally close the back cover.
From the outset McLaughlin plants her concerns firmly in the Ireland of the 21st century, her stories infused with the tension between what was then and what is now. The first story, The Art of Footbinding, tells of the disintegrating relationship between a mother and daughter. This theme of dysfunctional family dynamics is quite common in contemporary Irish writing (sometimes to the chagrin of readers and reviewers such as Julian Gough), perhaps understandably so. The family has long been an important concern for Irish people, even back to the legends of the Fianna, who fought alongside each other as though bound by blood. The temptation to use their writing to revise the Irish family dynamic is one that many new writers find hard to resist, to sometimes strained results but McLaughlin manages to keep it feeling fresh. These characters are all flawed — heavily in some cases, such as Janice, the mother who seems constantly on the verge of a breakdown — and the reader is placed firmly within their minds.
As one reads these stories there comes a sense that these events are happening after the fall of the Celtic Tiger (or just before), taking place in an Ireland scarred and pockmarked by its own hubris. Who is Janice but a woman used to the finer things in life, desperately trying to cling to the remnants of those good times, her relationship with her daughter and her collection of crystal figurines? Both these face a blow in the closing pages of the story, shattering with a loud crash. Janice is a woman trapped so much in the past that she cannot even bring herself to fix a fence in her garden as that would mean moving on. As such she just keeps assuring herself that she will eventually get it done: “She has meant to get them fixed, or replaced, but it will be impossible to find a tradesperson this close to Christmas. She will wait until January, when things are quieter, she will do it then.” Through this trait McLoughlin manages to critique the refusal of people during the Celtic Tiger to look to the future, to look for warning signs, being more than content to think only of the now and putting off the future till another day.
If these stories are coming across pessimistic that is because they largely are — or are least influenced by a sense of severe apathy. It is to McLaughlin’s credit that at no point does this atmosphere become overwhelmingly oppressive. She allows her readers to delve as deeply into the storm as they want, or to sail around the edge of it as they want.
Helping the mood is McLaughlin’s sparse style, which doesn’t allow any room for purple prose, so each and every word is carefully chosen. Take for instance, Those That I Fight I Do Not Hate, a deceptively simple story of the effects of an extramarital affair. Populated by largely unlikeable characters, the author manages to hold your attention as they interact with each other, each conversation dripping with palpable bitterness. Personally, I found this to be the most uncomfortable read of the collection. That’s not to say that this is a bad thing. Following a series of conversations wherein we see that no one trusts anyone else, we are “treated” to an unnerving physical encounter and the threat that things will only get worse. We find none of the beautiful writing that critics fall over themselves to heap praise upon, and the story is all the better for it. In its simplicity there is a strange sort of beauty, an almost hypnotic quality that refuses to let you know exactly what it is you should be feeling. Because of this, there is a greater degree of reader participation in these stories. But those who do not care for reads that are obviously designed to challenge needn’t worry, there is plenty to enjoy in these stories without needing to delve into their subtext.
Accessible, simple, beautiful and thoroughly engaging, Michelle McLoughlin’s debut work is nothing sort of wonderful. Carefully crafted, these are stories that will linger long after you have finished reading them, which will encourage you to return to them. You know you have done a good job when Anne Enright proclaims: “This is not a debut in the usual sense: a promise of greater things to come. There is no need to ask what Danielle McLaughlin will do next, she has done it already. This book has arrived.”
Coming from The Stinging Fly Press, who have released other titles such as Young Skins by Colin Barrett and Show Them A Good Time by Nicole Flattery, Dinosaurs on Other Planets has this reviewer’s full recommendation.