Book review: Dinosaurs on Other Planets

In a relatively short writing career Danielle McLaughlin has made huge strides and her latest collection, suggests Billy O’Callaghan, marks her down as a writer of exceptional perception and potential.

Book review: Dinosaurs on Other Planets

Danielle McLaughlin

The Stinging Fly Press, €12.99

Craft and control key to writing success

IN Danielle McLaughlin’s quite stunning debut collection of short stories, a teen, struggling at school and feeling overweight and unwanted, takes up a brutal ancient oriental practice while her mother struggles desperately to hold a betrayal-laden marriage together in The Art of Foot-Binding.

A middle-aged woman, living with her father and still crippled by a long-ago broken heart that had seen her incarcerated for blackmail, takes the opportunity, while the cat is away, to sate a craving in All About Alice.

Another woman, also middle-aged and in search of healing in the Italian hills following the break-up of a long-term lesbian relationship, flirts on the train with a beautiful young Austrian backpacker in Not Oleanders.

Part of what makes the stories in Dinosaurs on Other Planets so thoroughly impressive has to do with their sheer girth, a density that suggests the scale and substance of short novels.

Leaving entirely to implication the world as it might have been for these characters before they reached their first sentences, and also how they can hope to pick up the pieces in moving forward into the chasm beyond their last lines, the Donoughmore native displays an ambition and assurance rare indeed for a first-time talent.

“I’m relatively new to writing,” says Danielle, with endearing modesty.

“I used to work as a solicitor but had to stop due to illness in 2009 and that was the year the writing started.

"Initially, I was attempting to write by myself at home but it was only when I attended a series of workshops at the Munster Literature Centre in 2010/2011 and met the writers who would become my writing group — Marie Gethins, Barbara Leahy and Marie Murphy — that I began to make progress.”

Since then, her stories have appeared regularly in such Irish journals as Southword, the Penny Dreadful, the Long Story Short and, most notably, the Stinging Fly.

During this period she has also flourished as a prize winner, scooping the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen International Short Story Prize, the ‘From the Well’ Award, The Willesden Short Story Prize and The Merriman Short Story Award, and being shortlisted for several more honours, including the Davy Byrnes Award and twice, in 2013 and 2014, for the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Award for Short Story of the Year.

All of this, combined with the fact that two of her stories (the final two of the collection) have already achieved publication in the New Yorker, has helped mark her out as one of Ireland’s brightest literary prospects and is what makes this collection so highly anticipated.

“There is quite a bit of me in the stories,” she explains, in considering what gives this work its resonance.

“When I began writing, I think I was under the impression that because it was fiction I had to make everything up.

“I also used to think that using aspects of myself or my life might somehow restrict a story. But now I’m happy to harvest autobiographical elements for my fiction and I find that a story takes root better when there are bits of me in it.”

The result might look natural and unforced, but the level of commitment and dedication can’t and shouldn’t be underestimated.

“I am a very slow writer and I need to do a large number of drafts. It takes me a very long time to complete a story — some stories I might be working on for over a couple of years ... I feel that I’ve a lot of catching up to do in terms of short story reading, and I’m all the time discovering writers that are new to me.

“Perhaps depending on how our lives are going at any particular time, I think that sometimes we need one writer, sometimes another. (But) Alice Munro, Kevin Barry and Anne Enright are writers whose work I keep returning to ... I’m always very aware that I’ve been writing for a relatively short time, and that craft takes a long time to learn.

“Not having a sufficient level of craft to achieve what I’d like to achieve with a particular story is always frustrating.”

These are stories sculpted and polished to a high degree, each one small but strikingly muscular, ripe with a sense that each contains far more than the ten or twenty pages of their length would seem to allow.

Over and over, what the author offers up are intense explorations of largely rural-set relationships in silent turmoil: couples and families living in desperate denial of the chasms that have opened up and are threatening to destroy their surface tranquillities, to drag them asunder.

All but one of the stories here employ a third-person narrative, invariably delivered in a precise, temporal voice that by keeping very much to surfaces somehow shines a light on great hidden depths. As a result, highlights abound.

In Along the Heron-Studded River, a husband, under severe pressure at work, struggles desperately to hold the world together when it seems that his wife, who’d recently been through a bad breakdown, has begun neglecting their infant daughter’s welfare.

In the deeply affecting Night of the Silver Fox, a young man helps his uncle deliver a tanker of animal feed to a sick old man and his pretty Goth daughter on an isolated Limerick mink farm.

A spark flies between the boy and girl, but because their debts haven’t been paid in weeks, and fearing that the farm will finally go under, it’s with the boy’s uncle that the girl suggests another way the account might be settled.

And in A Different Country, one of the collection’s stand-out stories and as fine an example of the form as any produced by an Irish writer in recent years, a young woman travels north with her boyfriend to visit his family, and has to watch him revert to an older state of self.

Slipping the only skin she’d ever been allowed to know, he soon becomes a stranger to her.

Beautifully descriptive, poetic in its subliminal weight, and subtly disquieting, it’s nothing less than a masterpiece in miniature.

Dinosaurs On Other Planets found its shape over a considerable length of time.

“The selection of the stories was something that I worked on with my editor, Declan Meade, and my agent, Lucy Luck. For the most part, the stories in the collection are my more recent ones (though there is one that was written back in 2011).

“They are also, for the most part, my longer stories. When I began writing, I was mostly writing stories between 2,000 and 3,000 words in length. A couple of years in, I began to write without confining the stories in terms of word count and I found that the longer length suited me better.”

That the tensile quality of the writing can be sustained across the span of these 11 stories is a testament to the author’s devotion to craft and to an obvious flair for the musicality of language.

What’s here are controlled notes, meticulous melodies. Hardly a word goes spare; everything — setting, tone, characterisation — is laid down in devotion to the stories being told, even the unspeakable elements.

This is a remarkable first collection from a distinctive and extremely gifted writer on the brink of major recognition.

The book is set to impact heavily within the world of Irish literature, and with deals already in place for big-label UK and US editions in the coming months, it seems unlikely that Danielle McLaughlin’s imminent success will limit itself to these shores.

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