Author Danielle McLaughlin on the Cork locations that inspired her new novel, The Art of Falling

From seeing the light on Lough Hyne to staring across the Lee
Author Danielle McLaughlin on the Cork locations that inspired her new novel, The Art of Falling

Author Danielle McLaughlin in the old cemetery in Donoughmore, Co Cork. Pictures: Dan Linehan

It’s a calm night on the water as the kayaks set off from the small pier at Lough Hyne. Most of our party are novices, some - like me and my husband and kids – absolute beginners. As we move away from shore, I gradually relax into the rhythm of paddling and listen to the guide’s stories of the history of the lake and the surrounding West Cork countryside. 

He’s a born storyteller and we’re soon under his spell. Darkness falls, the moon rises, and my sense of anticipation grows. I’m here to see the bio-luminesence, the glow-in-the dark effect created by microalgae in the water called phytoplankton. It’s easily the most enjoyable part of my research for The Art of Falling.

I reach over the side of the kayak and trail a hand in the water, setting in motion a flurry of sparkles. Think shoal upon shoal of microscopic underwater fireflies. Aquatic stardust. With the moonlight above us and the sea glittering below, our trip on the lake, already an immensely beautiful experience, acquires an other-worldly quality. The underwater light-show plays out against a soundtrack of sloshing paddles, punctuated by occasional exclamations of delight. One of the things I like best about the cover design for The Art of Falling are the touches of silver that remind me of that glorious bioluminescence.

Nessa, the main character in the novel, visits Lough Hyne because an old friend from her college days has a holiday cabin there. Nessa’s marriage is coming back together after her husband’s affair. In her professional life, she’s enjoying the challenge of a new project, a retrospective art exhibition on the work of the sculptor Robert Locke. 

Locke’s widow and daughter live in a house near Tragumna, a small hamlet and beach located outside of Skibbereen and Nessa travels regularly to meet with them, appreciating the coastal air, the silver light that comes in off the sea, the lush growth of wildflowers in the ditches. Her own home is in Sunday’s Well in Cork city where she lives with her architect husband and teenaged daughter. 

Danielle McLaughlin: Influenced by the city centre, including the Lee Maltings, and the former Camden Palace Hotel arts centre.
Danielle McLaughlin: Influenced by the city centre, including the Lee Maltings, and the former Camden Palace Hotel arts centre.

The family in the novel is, of course, entirely fictional, but often, while visiting Fitzgerald’s Park, I’ve looked admiringly across the river at those houses with the beautifully manicured gardens that slope down to the River Lee. It’s one of the pleasures of fiction to be able to inhabit places where you might not otherwise get to spend time and I enjoyed spending time in Nessa’s house and environs. 

I liked to send her along Sunday’s Well Road to walk her dog, down to the pedestrian bridge on North Mall, across to the Lee Maltings, the dog snuffling at the quay walls and the flowers blooming in the crevices.

My fascination with riverside homes is something of a puzzle to me, since I can remember as a child being terrified of that same river. These were the days of Roches Stores, two Woolworths, Cashs. Once a week my parents would make the trip to Cork city to buy groceries and I used to be petrified that they would fall in the river and drown. Perhaps this is why, when a fictional Sunday’s Well house first entered my imagination, I built a fictional galvanised fence at the bottom of the garden. Or rather, I had Nessa’s mother-in-law build it.

Nessa’s workplace is a gallery in the city centre, where she has an office on the second floor with a view of the river and of the comings and goings of shoppers on Lavitt’s Quay opposite. From a certain angle, she can see the glass facade of Cork Opera House. The gallery in The Art of Falling had a very concrete inspiration in the form of the Camden Palace Hotel, the former Atkins/McKenzie building on Camden Quay. In the novel, the shape of the windows puts Nessa in mind of Grand Central Station, though it’s nowhere near as large. 

In real life, the building’s chequered past includes use as a courthouse, and as a garden centre, and in more recent years, an arts centre. Built in the late nineteenth century, it has Venetian style frontage with a double-height arcade to the front and cast-iron balconies on the windows facing the river. Out back were warehouses, since demolished, full of bulbs and seeds and gardening implements. The building could be a metaphor for the fortunes of Nessa’s family, as they deal with the financial fallout from her husband’s property investments. 

It sold in 2005 at the height of the property boom for €12.2 million. In 2014, it changed hands again for €750,000. When I came to choosing a name for it in the novel, I decided upon the Elmes Gallery, inspired by the life of Cork-born Mary Elmes who saved hundreds of Jewish children during the Holocaust by hiding them in the boot of her car and driving them to safe destinations. She was subsequently arrested, and imprisoned in Toulouse and later in Fresnes Prison near Paris. In 2019, after a public vote, the Mary Elmes Bridge across the River Lee was named after her.

"It’s a hazard of the writing life that people will inevitably claim to recognise themselves in your stories"
"It’s a hazard of the writing life that people will inevitably claim to recognise themselves in your stories"

Another Cork landmark that features in The Art of Falling, one that has kept its real-life name, is the Moderne, formerly of St Patrick Street. It’s a shop that was responsible for many of the fashion choices of my late teens. It’s also where I bought my wedding dress on a bargain rail for £20 while my now-husband had gone to fetch the car from the car park one rainy Saturday. (He had already proposed, in case you were wondering. The dress wasn’t my attempt at a very large hint). For Nessa, the shop has less happy associations. She’s walking past with her husband Philip one day when he stops and points to a mannequin in the window. 

‘Didn’t you used to have a yellow jumper like that?’ he says. The jumper isn’t remotely like the one Nessa used to own, apart from the fact that it’s yellow and has sleeves and a hole for the head, but she knows the jumper he’s thinking of. It’s the one she was wearing the day she found out about his affair with Cora Wilson, the mother of their daughter’s best friend. Nessa had subsequently thrown that jumper, an expensive one, in the bin. 

The associations were just too painful. But even after she threw it out, every time she opened the wardrobe door and saw the empty hanger she was reminded of Cora Wilson. She threw the hanger in the bin, but then the empty space reminded her of Cora, and one day she pulled the door off the wardrobe, wrenched it off with a pliers in such a way that the wardrobe cracked and had to be thrown out.

It’s a hazard of the writing life that people will inevitably claim to recognise themselves in your stories, a hazard that’s perhaps heightened when a Cork author writes a novel set in Cork. But whatever about the chances of anyone seeking to associate themselves with Nessa’s beautifully appointed house, I doubt there will be many people queuing up to identify with her marriage, or with the past that insists on popping up to ambush her, no matter how she strives to keep it at bay.

  • The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin is published by John Murray in Trade Paperback, 4th Feb 2021, £13.99

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