Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin is the new Irish Times Book Club choice. Over the next few weeks, we will explore this superb collection of short stories, publishing interviews, features, critiques and a story from the collection, culminating in a podcast interview with the author.
Although we published her Merriman prize-winning short story, In Through the Skin, in March 2013, I first encountered the author's work when she was shortlisted in a readers' competition as part of our After the Fall summer fiction series in 2013, which was won by fellow author Mary O'Donoghue.
You can read her entry, All The Dead Birds, here. It is an indicator of the calibre of her debut collection, however, that it did not make the cut, unlike Those That I Fight, a work we commissioned in 2014 as part of our This Means War series.
Since then she has had two stories published in the New Yorker within 12 months, In the Act of Falling and the title story of her debut collection, which is published by Stinging Fly, whose roster includes such talented writers as Kevin Barry, Mary Costello, Claire-Louise Bennett and Colin Barrett.
Her book was launched last month by fellow author Anne Enright, the Laureate for Irish Fiction, who declared to laughter that Dublin was the only city where the phrase “a hotly-anticipated short story collection” could be spoken with conviction. “This is not a debut in the usual sense: a promise of greater things to come,” she said. “There is no need to ask what Danielle McLaughlin will do next, she has done it already. This book has arrived. I think it will stay with us for a long time.”
Enright praised the sap that rises through McLaughlin’s writing and admitted that while she prides herself on recognising a writer’s style, McLaughlin’s versatility outwitted her when she read her entries to the Davy Byrnes and Merriman competitions. Listing The Stinging Fly’s distinguished roster of writers, Enright joked: “No pressure then”, but McLaughlin can more than hold her own.
In McLaughlin’s stories, her publisher writes, the world is both beautiful and alien. Men and women negotiate their surroundings as a tourist might navigate a distant country: watchfully, with a mixture of wonder and apprehension. Here are characters living lives in translation, ever at the mercy of distortions and misunderstandings, striving to make sense both of the spaces they inhabit and of the people they share them with. A woman battles bluebottles as she plots an ill-judged encounter with a stranger; a young husband commutes a treacherous route to his job in the city, fearful for the wife and small daughter he has left behind; a mother struggles to understand her nine-year-old son’s obsession with dead birds and the apocalypse.
The author’s way with endings stands out. Her stories will startle readers with their closing imagery and insights. Nature features prominently as a way to symbolise despair and loss... These are characters who wonder how their stories have gone so wrong, who want to leave their lives “like a balloon leaves a fairground”. As they stumble in the darkness, McLaughlin tempts the reader to seek answers with her intelligent and beautiful prose.
Sarah Gilmartin, The Irish Times
Like the best fiction, Danielle McLaughlin’s debut short story collection feels bigger than the sum of its parts. The prose is taut, narratives whittled, characterisation disturbing and potent, but so much more than this, the stories magnify the little moments, so beautifully suited to short stories, that make a life. It’s not the big moments that make us who we are and what is important, but a collection of tiny moments that create us. Dinosaurs on Other Planets makes the insignificant significant. Each story, and their relationship with one another, showcases how we are all vulnerable; never invincible or too far from potential emotional or physical disaster. ... McLaughlin explores the darker choices and behaviours of her characters through prose that shakes to the core, at times subtle, at times disturbing. Dinosaurs on Other Planets will cause waves, and lingers in the memory long after finishing reading.
Laura Kenwright, Wales Arts Review
Over and over, what the author offers up are intense explorations of largely rural-set relationships in silent turmoil: couples and families living in desperate denial of the chasms that have opened up and are threatening to destroy their surface tranquillities, to drag them asunder. ... That the tensile quality of the writing can be sustained across the span of these 11 stories is a testament to the author’s devotion to craft and to an obvious flair for the musicality of language. What’s here are controlled notes, meticulous melodies. ... This is a remarkable first collection from a distinctive and extremely gifted writer on the brink of major recognition.
Billy O’Callaghan, The Irish Examiner
The first step to a good short story is that it can be read in one uninterrupted sitting. The second is that it knows and respects the rules of conventional story telling. And the third, and most important, is that it knows exactly when to break these rules. Cork writer Danielle McLaughlin has mastered these steps ... McLaughlin’s writing is so captivating and visual that you are instantly in the story from the first paragraph. She knows just the right amount of information to give, almost frustrating us with the unknowns, but providing enough suggestions and clues to keep us going ... McLaughlin conveys so much with so little.
Sophie Gorman, The Irish Independent
Dinosaurs on Other Planets is published by Stinging Fly, €12.99. Hodges Figgis offers a 10 per cent discount to Irish Times Book Club readers.
Next: On Wedmnesday, we publish a short story from Dinosaurs on Other Planets