In The Night of the Silver Fox, one of the many stand out stories in Danielle McLaughlin’s memorable collection Dinosaurs on Other Planets, a character notes that
Trouble knows its way around
Trouble certainly knows it’s way around in these 11 stories – each an intense exploration of loneliness and distance, each displaying the vulnerability of human existence that is always so close to the surface and the fear that we are never far from emotional or physical danger. McLaughlin’s characters have made mistakes, or are making them and their lives are ones of quiet desperation.
That there is not a weak story among this collection is testament to McLaughlin’s subtle but effective prose style and her ability to draw faint lines between her stories, most of which are set in modern day rural Ireland. The promise of a perfect life is distant in this collection and ripples of disquiet threaten to become waves as her characters face daily the possibility of being pulled under by family, by their past and by their future.
She felt a small, quiet panic rise up inside of her. It was the panic of a swimmer, who has drifted out, little by little, on a rogue current, and who suddenly discovers herself to be far from shore.
In All About Alice a woman in her forties is unable to move on in life due to a crime that she cannot get past. Lily in Not Oleanders is trying to forget a failed love affair while on holiday in Italy but misreads an encounter with a beautiful young woman.
there again, were the beautiful clavicles: so snappable and exposed that Lily wanted to reach out and tug at the fabric in an effort to cover them, to tell this young woman who knew nothing that anything that can be seen can be broken
In A Different Country, Sarah comes to spend a weekend with her boyfriend Jonathan at his family home in Donegal, only to discover secrets about his past relationships and the illegal seal fishing he partakes in with his brother. Meanwhile teenager Gerard in The Night of the Silver Fox gets an uncomfortable and unwanted insight into what constitutes commerce in rural Ireland.
Stories featuring more traditional family structures reveal their own cracks. In Those That I Fight I Do Not Hate an alcoholic father’s self-loathing reaches dangerous levels at his daughter’s communion party while in The Art of Footbinding, a mother struggles to maintain a relationship with her unhappy daughter. The distance between characters is both literal and metaphorical as they struggle to communicate and stay close together.
Two stories feature characters who travel to work in the city and attempt to deal with the daily separation from family. In Along the Heron-Studded River, a man fears for his bi-polar wife and their daughter when he leaves for work each day
The river road was a portal between worlds: his home on one side, the city on the other, and in the middle a no-man’s land of space and time when his wife and daughter were beyond his grasp, unreachable
While in a reverse situation, a reluctant working mother in In The Act of Falling worries that her husband is frittering away their money on art books and allowing her son to skip school and run wild in the unfinished building site by their home. This is one of the stand out stories of this collection (which you can read here in The New Yorker) marrying the gothic Irish sentiment of the ‘Big House’ with a modern apocalyptic sense of dread.
Nature plays a big part in McLaughlin’s stories. Dead ducks and dead insects take on ominous meaning, a seal in the moonlight brings a sense of dread and the fields around a country home are become otherworldly. There are constant reminders that we are playing out our lives against the backdrop of a galaxy which is vaster and more complex that we can hope to fathom.
There is beauty to be found in all this uncertainty and it comes mostly from the prose which is musical and sustained and quietly convincing, McLaughlin has a knack for the capturing and magnifying those small seemingly insignificant moments in a life which turn out to be the most important, if we could only understand them. Her characters are standing on shifting sands, trying to make sense of what has come before and what may be coming and often wishing to leave the lives they find themselves in
Like a balloon leaves a fairground
Dinosaurs on Other Planets is a stunning debut, beautifully written and distinctively controlled. Reading these stories, what I came away with most was a sense of connection with the characters, an understanding of their anxieties and their fears. In the final title story Dinosaurs on Other Planets, Kate – a wife, mother and grandmother in name only, these roles no longer requiring anything of her – comes to the stoic realisation of what it is to be human
There were stars, millions of them, the familiar constellations she had known since childhood. From this distance, they appeared cold and still and beautiful, but she had read somewhere that they were always moving, held together only by their gravity. They were white-hot clouds of dust and gas, and the light, if you got close, would blind you.
I received a copy of Dinosaurs on Other Planets from the published through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review