Dinosaurs on Other Planets: Stories by Danielle McLaughlin
Published in the US on August 9th 2016 (UK in 2015)
Penguin Random House
Source: ARC from Random House via Netgalley
“In a raw seacoast cabin, a young woman watches her boyfriend go out with his brother, late one night, on a mysterious job she realizes she isn’t supposed to know about. A man gets a call at work from his sister-in-law, saying that his wife and his daughter never made it to nursery school that day. A mother learns that her teenage daughter has told a teacher about problems in her parents’ marriage that were meant to be private—problems the mother herself tries to ignore. McLaughlin conveys these characters so vividly that readers will feel they are experiencing real life. Often the stories turn on a single, fantastic moment of clarity—after which nothing can be the same.” Source: Penguin Random House
I had the privilege of traveling to Ireland just over a month ago. Alas, when I returned, as these things go, my Netgalley request for Dinosaurs on Other Planets, a beautiful debut short-story collection by a budding Irish author, was approved. Having just spent a few days imbibing the soulful atmosphere of Dublin and the melancholy of the fertile but sparsely inhabited countryside of County Cork, I was especially appreciative of McLaughlin’s portrait of Ireland in transition.
The backdrop is a place still struggling from economic depression, and the overwhelming theme explored is human despair/alienation. A father desperately attempts to provide for his bipolar wife and child; a team of brothers engage in smuggling activities; a mink-farmer is ridden by debt.
The most unsettling aspect for me was McLaughlin’s choice of setting. Most stories take place in locations far removed from urban centers (long described as harbors of despair). I’ve always day-dreamed about my ideal of a peaceful life: roaming Romanian’s Carpathians as a shepherd up on the slopes of the Romanian Carpathians – just me, the mountains, and sheep. And of course, in my fantasy, I’m also carrying a backpack full of books.
But, this daydream is a purely romantic notion, born of a melancholy for simpler times, in which nature symbolizes peacefulness and beauty. Who knows if these times really existed? We tend to see the past through rose-colored glasses, yearning for an ‘Eden’ that lives purely in the imagination and is not supported by historical fact.
Realistically, if I was a Romanian shepherd, I wouldn’t be carrying around a backpack full of books (I wouldn’t have the means, or the education most likely). I’d be living in poverty, away from human companionship for long stretches at a time. And meanwhile, the world would go on, and I would know very little about it. On second thought, not so ideal, after all. In fact, a privileged self-indulgence: for I’m sure I wouldn’t be having this fantasy if I were still a child in Communist Romania. Ah, the view from my American land-of-plenty perch…
McLaughlin brilliantly captures this dilemma of modern times: even in remote places, even in places bountifully given to nature, human despair persists, darkness still encroaches. There is no place where we can go to ‘escape’.
McLaughlin does not provide easy answers, but neither does she leave the reader with a complete sense of loss. For even within the bounds of our lives, we still have the ability to make meaning for ourselves. There is, at least, no cessation of movement: we are compelled forward, by our desire to understand. And, this desire is fundamentally a productive and positive force that propels action/life.
Life sweeps us along in an ever-moving stream. Whatever happens, wherever we are, rivers don’t stop on our behalf. This sentiment is poignantly alluded to in the final story of the collection, in which a child wonders, could there be dinosaurs on other planets? Since they were wiped out on Earth by an asteroid, what about all those places that have not been hit? Even when a devastating realization, event, or act may wipe out all we hold dear, or may cause us to rethink all of our preconceptions, the world goes on, carrying us even as we may lie limp or try to fight against the current. Sobering, indeed.
McLaughlin writes beautifully, her insights are penetrating, and her stories are easily relatable. Still, I wasn’t fully captured by the work – it was a bit too melancholy and lethargic for my taste. It took me weeks to read, even though it’s shorter than most books I finish in a couple of days, and then weeks more to write this review. Nothing about this book compelled me to finish it, or to want to talk about it, so minus one heart.