Irish short story writer McLaughlin’s debut collection is a treat for American readers.
Written in clear, simple prose, these 11 stories focus on the potent imagery and the powerful emotions floating beneath the surface of seemingly mundane lives. Each story effectively mines the specific for a universal payoff. The first story, “The Art of Foot-Binding,” explores an unhappy wife and mother’s domestic angst through the prism of her daughter’s history project. In “All About Alice,” a 45-year-old woman who spends days tending to her elderly father goes looking for adventure and finds herself unable to keep a lid on the secrets of her younger years. McLaughlin is at her best when demonstrating contrasts among everyday images. Kevin, the main character of “Those That I Fight I Do Not Hate,” feels his “missing flask like a phantom limb” while perusing his neighbor Bob Miller’s military memorabilia collection in the midst of a neighborhood First Communion party, where little girls rush past as “a battalion of miniature brides, their white sandals clattering over the tiles.” The title story makes for a strong finish, when a mother and grandmother feels everyone she loves—spouse, children, grandchild—drifting further and further away. Isolated from the group after dinner one night, having insisted on doing all the cleanup herself, Kate’s view out the window includes three wind turbines, whose “red lights shone down from the mountain…a warning to aircraft.” Close at hand, her kitchen sink fills, and she watches “the bubble form psychedelic honeycombs, millions and millions of tiny domes, glittering on the dirty plates.” In McLaughlin’s world, the everyday has the same sparkle—or the same devastation—as a glittering galaxy or a war.
There is no weakest link in this powerful set of stories—all the characters are given space and time for their stories to build to rich conclusions.