I was fortunate enough to win a copy of Danielle McLaughlin’s short story collection on Goodreads last year. I read most of them when I got the book, but I (re-)read them again for Reading Ireland Month (hosted by 746 Books and The Fluff Is Raging). What impressed me most was that I remembered every single story. Short stories can be tricky; some should be longer to work well, and some have barely enough material to make a story. But the stories in McLaughlin’s collection are all just right. The prose is sharp and to the point, and each story presents a perfect snapshot of someone’s life.
I spent most of my day yesterday shoveling snow, which gave me plenty of time to think about the characters in the stories. They are all such everyday people, and yet each one is set apart by loneliness, worry, and alienation.
There’s a middle-aged woman who can’t move on from a crime she committed, a man who worries about his daughter left in the care of his bipolar wife, a working mother concerned that her husband doesn’t take good enough care of their son, and a woman confronted with the fact that her boyfriend takes part in illegal activities. The character who made the strongest impression was the alcoholic father who spends most of the time at a children’s party searching for something to drink. I pitied him, although I was also repulsed by his action towards the end of the story.
The image that has stayed with me since my first reading is the unhappy daughter who is binding her feet in an effort to better understand what her teacher is talking about in school. In this story, instructions for how to properly bind feet are given throughout, and the horrible descriptions of how to break the toes and how to deaden the skin are juxtaposed with the mother’s horror at seeing her daughter’s feet bound in the white, almost glowing bedsheets she is using.
I loved that each story was connected to nature in some way. On the one hand, descriptions of bugs, birds, and minks serve to underscore how “normal” the settings and characters are, but on the other hand, they also show how set apart the men and women are. Whether it is the deep frost on bare trees, storm clouds, or herons picking on ice to get to their food, each story has some wonderful and astutely observed descriptions of nature.
“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.”
This is so lovely and sad at the same time, don’t you think?
As you can see, the snow day also enabled us to stage a photo shoot with the book. Kid #3, dinosaur lover extraordinaire, is deeply impressed by the cover, although he keeps asking WHICH planets have dinosaurs. After reading Irish literature for three weeks now, I want to know if there are any happy people in Ireland. Haha, of course there are, but you won’t find them in this book. It is the quiet suffering of each and every character that makes this collection one worth reading.
I have to thank Cathy, who brought this book to my attention last year. You can read her review here.