The beasts of the Earth have a hard time of it in “Dinosaurs on Other Planets,” Danielle McLaughlin’s stellar debut collection. Whether it’s ducks or seals, koi or mink, menace is never far off.
In truth, humans don’t fare so well, either. In the title story, 50-year-old Kate’s daughter turns up for a visit in rural North Cork with young son Oisín and a new boyfriend, swiftly impinging on the precarious household order. The boy’s startling but doomed theory of dinosaurs living on other planets (unmolested by deadly meteor strikes) expertly frames the collection’s themes of alienation and sorrow, the rhythms and mysteries of grief. The territory may be bleak but McLaughlin maps it with a rare lightness of touch — with humor, compassion and a sense of wonder, all solid as the elements.
Decidedly less solid is the striving husband of “Along the Heron-Studded River,” who’s moved to a near-magical countryside setting with his wife — “It’s like Narnia,” she whispers — but their dream life frays when her struggles with mental illness put their young daughter at risk. Conversely, “In the Act of Falling” centers on a woman made sole breadwinner after her husband’s layoff in the economic collapse, a blow that comes soon after their purchase of an expensive country estate. Depressed husband Bill dawdles his days away and son Finn starts acting out in school, fretting about the coming animal apocalypse, and building backyard nets to catch the falling carcasses of dead birds.
Money’s hardly more abundant for McLaughlin’s working-class characters, like the gruff Kavanagh of “Night of the Silver Fox” and his naive assistant Gerard, who set out to deliver a load of fish meal and wring payment from a hard-up mink farmer. The young college graduate of “A Different Country” travels with her architect boyfriend to his fisherman brother’s rundown bungalow in coastal Donegal, where she’s engulfed in a set of violent struggles.
Even in this nearly faultless collection, a clear standout is “The Smell of Dead Flowers,” the spring-loaded tale of college student Louise, whose arrival at an older cousin’s home sets off a series of emotional explosions to rival the best stories of Alice Munro.
Louise is still in the throes of testing her power, but for most of McLaughlin’s characters, though, fragility is by far the most potent force. At the close of the title story, Kate stands alone in her back garden, gazing at the indifferent stars. “They appeared cold and still and beautiful” but “they were white-hot clouds of dust and gas, and the light, if you got close, would blind you.”
Marian Ryan’s work has appeared in Slate, Salon, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Mail on Sunday and other publications.
Dinosaurs on Other Planets: Stories
By: Danielle McLaughlin.
Publisher: Random House, 240 pages, $27.