Review: Dinosaurs On Other Planets – Danielle McLaughlin

 doopIf you only read one short story collection this year, make it this one.

The cover of Dinosaurs On Other Planets promises a “world both beautiful and alien”, where “men and women negotiate their surroundings as a tourist might navigate a distant country”, and this consistent theme of alien, off-kilter environments provides a rich seam of tension and conflict which Danielle McLaughlin skilfully mines. In Not Oleanders, a girl misinterprets the gesture of a fellow traveller, feeling clumsy and uncomfortable in a foreign land – for her, humiliation will “wait in the long grass of memory”. In A Different Country, a woman’s understanding of her partner is fundamentally changed by the events on a visit to his childhood home – as his voice and whole self seem to alter, she feels the “small, quiet panic” of “a swimmer who has drifted out…and who suddenly discovers herself to be far from shore”. In the title story, a couple are forced back into the marriage bed they have abandoned by a rare visit from their daughter, compelling them to confront the unspoken demise of their relationship.

As well as strange environments, these stories are studded with inappropriate relationships, sexual or otherwise: a missionary befriending a young boy, a drunk at a first communion party, hitting on the teenage daughter of the host, a girl and her jealous aunt’s lodger. A woman is frustrated by the admiration her teenage daughter has for her young teacher, at her own inability to forge a bond with this girl who is no longer a child, and at the loss of her own youth and marital bond. In All About Alice, a middle-aged woman takes advantage of her father’s absence to throw herself at an inappropriately young man, then is unable to stop herself from unloading her past on him: “Every word that bubbled up on Alice’s tongue seemed to swallow a little more of what light remained.”

McLaughlin is particularly deft at using the full range of senses to bring her tiny worlds alive.In Night of the Silver Fox, the stench of fish is everywhere. For the teenager working  the fish delivery to a mink farm, “fine shards of fish bone lodged like shrapnel beneath his skin”, the rodents with their eyes “like wet beads”, and “the skinned corpses” in a barrel, “pink and slippery and hairless”, all contribute to the grimness of the situation in this dark tale of desperate people. Extracts from a how-to manual on the gruesome deformations caused by the ancient Chinese practice emphasise the pain of secrets kept and broken feelings in The Art of Foot Binding: ‘Soon, a valley will form between cleft and heel, dark and secret as a jade gate”.

In Dinosaurs On Other Planets, the raft of tensions and secrets that exist between people are finely examined, raw spots prodded until they erupt, the mundane lifted to the exquisite under McLaughlin’s spell. These are eleven stories that will resonate long after you close the final page.

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