Dinosaurs On Other Planets: Stories – Danielle McLaughlin
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. In Danielle McLaughlin’s stories, 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.
Review: This short story collection isn’t quite what I was expecting. It contains no dinosaurs or other planets, but it does contain realistic stories about characters whose lives have gone slightly off-course.
These are iceberg stories. You only see brief snippets of the characters’ lives, but you know that a lot is happening under the surface. Most things are left unsaid. The characters bury their feelings and don’t find it easy to express their thoughts. This isn’t a collection that a reader can race through. You have to pause after each story and think about it to really understand its meaning.
There’s nothing explicitly sad about the stories, but they all have a heavy, melancholy tone. The characters are on the cusp of major changes in their lives. The reader gets the sense that the characters are holding their breaths, waiting to see which way life shoves them next. There’s an equal chance of things getting dramatically better or dramatically worse.
Danielle McLaughlin’s writing is beautiful. These stories are very well-observed. The author definitely understands human behavior and how subtle actions can sometimes say more than words.
I love the setting. Most of the stories take place in rural Ireland. I’ve never been to Ireland, but the author makes it easy to get a sense of the landscape and the people.
My only complaint about this collection is that some of the stories are too quiet for me. Compared to most short stories, these are quite long. Since they’re long and slow, it sometimes feels like nothing is happening.
Still, I like the tone of the collection and the complex characters. I have to be vague about my favorite stories because they’re too easy to spoil. They don’t have tons of action or unexpected plot twists. Here they are:
In “The Art of Foot-binding,” a rebellious teenage girl comes home with an unusual school assignment. When the girl’s mother confronts the teacher, she learns that her daughter may know more about her parents’ failing marriage than the mother cares to admit.
“Along the Heron-Studded River” takes place in a rural area. A husband commutes to the city for work every day, but he lives in terror that his wife will harm their young daughter while he’s gone.
One of my favorite-favorite stories is “Night of the Silver Fox.” A young truck driver develops an interest in the strong-minded daughter of a fur farmer. He’s devastated to learn that she’s resorting to desperate measures to keep her father’s failing farm from going bankrupt.
“‘It’s what they’re bred for,’ she said, turning away, ‘they don’t know any different.’” – Dinosaurs on Other Planets
“Not Oleanders” is the only story that doesn’t take place in Ireland. After a breakup with her lover, Lily travels to Italy alone. To stave off loneliness, she tracks down a fellow tourist who she met on a train, but the encounter doesn’t go as planned.
“Life, after all, was mostly the art of salvage.” – Dinosaurs on Other Planets
My other favorite-favorite is the title story, “Dinosaurs on Other Planets.” This one is about dying relationships. A grandmother wants to be involved in the life of her grandson, but she worries that all he’ll remember from his visit to her house is the sheep skull that he found in a field. (And misidentified as a dinosaur skull.)
TL;DR: If you like quiet, highly realistic short stories, this is a must-read.