Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday 23 April 2016

"Dinosaurs on other planets" by Danielle McLaughlin (John Murray, 2016)

Stories from "The Stinging Fly" (who first published this collection), "The New Yorker", etc. After reading the first few pages of the first story I knew I was in safe hands; it's immersive. I'm impressed by the whole book.

"All About Alice" was rather like a William Trevor story. Alice is a 45 y.o. spinster, living with her father. The story begins with "August was heavy with dying bluebottles". Soon, "His newspaper carved frantic circles in the air as he struck at the flies. 'Feckers,' he shouted. 'Hoors.'" He leaves for West Cork. She has "A whole week stretched in front of her: a wild west of freedom, waiting for the charge of Alice's wagon". She pops over to her sister who's busy looking after her kids. Alice wants a man. She find one, Jarath, sleeps with him in his house, confesses that she once blackmailed a married man - "It was all over the newspapers". Jarath leaves her in his house. The story ends as it began with Alice plus her father in their kitchen. While he was away Alice had put up fly papers, but she's taken them down. "All along the window panes, the bluebottles, dark and velvety, rise up in a last frantic salute to life and summer". The father could have said "women are like bluebottles. Newspapers are their enemy" but instead the simile is made real - losing its exactness but gaining strength.

"Along the Heron-Studded River" has a rather more ambiguous symbol. There's a tell-tale paragraph on p.55 - "He wanted to say that it was winter, that the bird was only doing what it always did, what it had to do. That there had never been any hope for those unwitting koi, here in this desolate place where even the river fish struggled to survive." But his wife with mental problems wants to protect the koi. At the end a cut-glass decanter's about to fall, "But he was watching, as he was always watching, and he was there, just in time to catch it before it fell".

I like passages like this -

She would ask Finn to help her; it might take his mind off all things dead. They could paint the hives different colours, use them as planting boxes; she had no desire to keep bees. Items of bee-keeping equipment - a suit, a veiled hat, a smoker - had been among the things left behind in the shed, and she'd taken this as evidence that the people who had lived here before were bee-keepers, but perhaps it was better evidence that they were not; that they were, at best, failed bee-keepers. And for no reason that she could point to, she knew that the beekeeping paraphernalia hadn't belonged to the same person who owned the pony trap; these things, she was sure, were the leavings of two different people, the discarded parings of two separate lives (p.160)

Common features are crystal glass, staying with relatives, dead insects, birds (alive or dead), and people who drift off into the countryside, having to be found. In a short fiction interview she writes that "My stories tend to feature characters who navigate the world with difficulty, at the mercy of misunderstandings and communication fails and distortions, people living life in translation. And I’m usually writing about them when they’re moving towards a crisis of some sort". Elsewhere I've written about The dinosaurs on other planets title story, which has several of those features.

Other reviews

  • Matthew Adams (almost all of McLaughlin’s tales take place in her home country of Ireland ... Dinosaurs On Other Planets is full of such arresting, resonant and precise writing. Yet McLaughlin’s prose also suffers at times from inexactness and cliché. Characters worry about “tempting fate” or want to drag someone “by the scruff of the neck” ... This kind of writing dilutes the strength and intensity of McLaughlin’s otherwise careful and particular prose. It also contributes to the sense of inattentiveness that afflicts this collection as a whole, and diminishes the power of the spells that McLaughlin is so evidently capable of casting when she is writing at her best.)
  • Catherine Taylor (Her near-faultless debut collection, originally published by Stinging Fly, deals primarily with psychological alienation, and the desolate upheaval of humans in crisis.)
  • Sarah Gilmartin (The author’s way with endings stands out. Her stories will startle readers with their closing imagery and insights. Nature features prominently as a way to symbolise despair and loss.)

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