This quotation from Not Oleanders by Danielle McLaughlin seems to sum up her collection of short stories Dinosaurs on Other Planets. But maybe the word “would” is too positive.
The Ireland that McLaughlin depicts is, indeed, since the recession, another planet for her characters. And they find themselves dinosaurs on it. Their modus vivendi does not suit the reality of their diminished world. Some characters, such as the unnamed female protagonist in In the Act of Falling, make huge efforts to maintain or improve their trammelled lives, whilst others, sink, almost motionless, into a quicksand of debt and hopelessness. McLaughlin presents an Ireland which is hostile and punitive.
Open the book on almost any page and you will find that the things which could be good are getting spoiled. Look on page four, in the story The Art of Foot-Binding and read the following description of a daughter, “She turned fourteen the previous July, and is suddenly grown…”. The sentence continues ominously, “taller and broader”. And then, “Her face, already too round to be pretty, has become rounder, and she has taken to wearing her long, brown hair, her best feature, in a tight bun”. This is uncomfortable reading. It nods to the body-facism that feminists, such as myself, fight against. Whose voice is this? The mother, Janice, or McLaughlin herself? Janice is certainly the focaliser but does the writer agree with the sentiments? Becky, the unfortunate daughter is considered too fat by her mother, her father, her teacher and her peers. Set a homework task to research foot-binding, she takes it literally and starts trying to reduce her feet by binding them. McLaughlin may be suggesting that the media creates a similarly alien and cruel environment for young women as the Chinese did when they broke the bones of girls’ feet and extracted their toe nails.
The stories contain frequent references to both female beauty and female slovenliness. The extraordinary A Different Country, is set in a Donegal which is “almost too beautiful … the colours too pure, the light too fantastical” (113). On the other hand a young inhabitant, Pauline, is “good-looking in a raw, violent sort of way (114)” and is described in the shower as “naked: the distended belly, the hair, black and wet and sleek, writhing in worms around her shoulders” (119). At the end, when fishermen have shot seals which interfered with their nets, the reader realises that, like Synge in The Aran Islands and like Lawless in Grania, McLoughlin is conflating the locals with their landscape. Men, merciless, battle the sea for survival and their women are reduced to nothing more than seals, which have been wounded, but remain alive, “bleeding out” (124). In this story, as in the others, what might have been beautiful is transformed, by McLaughlin’s pen, into something “remorseless”, “slime green and rotting” (124).
In an interview for The New Yorker McLaughlin states that her “characters tend to negotiate the world with a mixture of fear and wonder; for them, it is a place at once both beautiful and alien”. Although she seems happy in her own life, living with her three children in the countryside, McLaughlin does not allow her characters much of the “beautiful” or the “wonder”. In the story Not Oleanders, McLaughlin ends as follows: “The horses broke into a trot, then a canter. Then they were barrelling downhill, their unkempt manes flying, their tails streaming out behind them. The slope brought its own momentum, and they were galloping now, neighing and snorting and whinnying. They thundered past, trampling on daises, forget-me-nots, buttercups. And as they went by, she stepped back into the trees, to shelter from the clouds of yellow dust flung up by the chaos of their hooves” (91). This is evocative sensual writing, but note words such as “trampling” and “chaos”. The protagonist, Lily, feels that life and joy are galloping past her, leaving her to seek solitary shelter from the chaos left by those who can survive in an alien world of fear.
Lawless, E. Grania: The Story of an Island. 1892. ed. Michael O’Flynn. Rev.ed. Brighton: Victorian Secrets, 2013. Print.
McLaughlin. D. Dinosaurs on Other Planets Dublin: The Stinging Fly Press. 2015. Print.
Synge, J. M. The Aran Islands. Introd. and ed. Tim Robinson. London: Penguin Twentieth Century Classics. 1992. Print.