Majnun Ben-David

Phrases I Liked: Danielle McLaughlin

Periodically I will read some short stories by a contemporary author and post a few of my favorite phrases from them.

This week's author is Danielle McLaughlin, who has published a dozen or more short stories in magazines and journals, winning a dozen or more awards along the way (numbers approximate). Her first book, a collection of short stories, will be published in 2015 by The Stinging Fly Press. McLaughlin, who lives in Cork and writes in what I’d call the Irish realist style, first came to my attention with her excellent story “The Dinosaurs on Other Planets” in The New Yorker. McLaughlin began writing in 2009, and is definitely a writer to watch.

Now for some phrases I really liked in her work ...

“As soon as she reached the bottom of the stairs the next morning, she knew she was not the first up. It was as if someone had cut through the air before her, had broken the invisible membrane that formed during the night.” (The Dinosaurs on Other Planets in The New Yorker)

“‘They’re like gods, aren’t they?’ he said, pointing to the three wind turbines rotating slowly on the mountain. ‘I feel I should take them a few dead chickens, kill a goat or something.’” (The Dinosaurs on Other Planets in The New Yorker)

“Grass verges crept outward, thickening the arteries of narrow lanes.” (The Dinosaurs on Other Planets in The New Yorker)

“The girl was in Ali’s King Kebab Takeaway because she had been out-witted by an eight year old.” (Midnight at Ali’s King Kebab Takeaway in Southword) I think this would have been a good sentence to start the story, as it immediately makes you (or, at least, makes me) want to find out what happened. Also, I love the title of this story.

“Mrs Host Mother was heaving and squawking like a shot pigeon, wings beating in a flurry of dying feathers.” (Midnight at Ali’s King Kebab Takeaway in Southword)

“In a less beautiful woman, the Vietnam stories might have begun to irritate, but he nodded encouragingly, waited for her to begin.” (The Others in Southword) Out of McLaughlin’s stories that I’ve read, I think “The Others” is my favorite. It’s compact yet powerful. She gives us enough description to go on, but keeps the story moving.

“And as she listened, it seemed to her that the border they had crossed and uncrossed the night before, the black line cutting through villages and sitting rooms, was little more than artifice, a nod to some semblance of containment. It was a belt slung loosely, land and sea spilling over it like paunch, because here, here too, it was a different country.” (A Different Country in The Stinging Fly)

“All of the years he had lived in this place before he met her, all of the time they had been strangers to each other, unaware of the other’s existence, settled upon Sarah, heavy and impenetrable.” (A Different Country in The Stinging Fly)

“At night, while others slept, my father walked among tentacled shadows.” (Fields With Asterisks Are Mandatory in Burning Bush 2) I also enjoyed the title/idea of this flash fiction piece, a different spin on the standard admonition on forms.

“I still have the envelope, its stamps ripe with purple fruit.” (Below Ground on RTE Ten website)

“I had high hopes for my mother’s last words.” (To the Tea Rooms on RTE Radio 1) This phrase is well-placed in the story, but it would also make a terrific first sentence -- so many different directions you could go.

‘Sometimes I think he never had a mother at all; that he was coughed up with a ball of husk from the belly of a wildcat.’” (The Governor’s Gin in Long Story, Short)

‘Back in England, there is nothing but rain and embroidery.’” (The Governor’s Gin in Long Story, Short)

Danielle McLaughlin’s stories are usually centered on families, and have a clear narrative trajectory. The descriptions are rich, the insights keen. My two favorites are “
The Others” (for a shorter piece) and “A Different Country” (for a longer piece), followed by “The Dinosaurs on Other Planets.”

Of her stories I could find online, there seem to be two outliers, “
Fields With Asterisks Are Mandatory ” and “The Governor’s Gin.”

The very short “
Fields With Asterisks Are Mandatory ” departs from straight realism, with success. My guess is that McLaughlin came across the title phrase, as one does, realized it could be interpreted in a surreal fashion (as in agricultural fields growing asterisks), and thought, hey, even though I’m basically a realist writer, that might make an interesting little non-realist story. That’s my guess because I did the same thing with the idea of a county without weather, even though I usually write in a realistic style.

McLaughlin’s longer “
The Governor’s Gin” differs from the rest of what I read by being set in British Colonial India rather than modern-day Ireland. The time and place were well-rendered, but the plot struck me as one-sided and verging on formulaic, with some of the dialogue edging close to cliche. Other readers enjoyed this story, so my reactions might well be idiosyncratic.

I think highly of McLaughlin’s stories, but I also think that she has the potential to write even better ones. At points, her description seems to exist only for its own sake. In a few of her stories, the impact seemed rather muted or lacking in depth (e.g., “Below Ground”). To be sure, though, she is capable of powerful images, such as the skull in “The Dinosaurs on Other Planets,” and dynamic scenes, such as the ending of “A Different Country.” When matched with her keen insight into relationships, that makes for very good reading indeed.

As a developing writer off to a great start, it will be interesting to see where McLaughlin goes from here. She is definitely someone worth watching.

Disclaimer: I have exchanged a few messages with Ms. McLaughlin on Twitter, but I otherwise have no connection with her.
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