Danielle McLaughlin had already picked up a clutch of literary prizes and published a short story in The New Yorker by the time her debut collection, Dinosaurs on Other Planets, was published in 2015. These dark tales of domestic life were pervaded by a sense of baleful anxiety and haunting uncertainty that captured the mood of McLaughlin’s native Ireland in the years following the abrupt and painful end of the “Celtic Tiger” era in 2008. The collection was greeted with great acclaim, earning plaudits from the likes of Sebastian Barry and Anne Enright.
McLaughlin’s first novel, The Art of Falling, set mainly in contemporary Cork, is a compelling exploration of the ethics and emotional contours of marital affection and sexual infidelity.
The protagonist, Nessa McCormack, is a middle-aged curator struggling to forgive her husband for his recently uncovered affair with the mother of one of their teenage daughter’s friends. But as they begin to patch up their marriage, a chance encounter with a college roommate brings Nessa back into contact with a circle of old acquaintances, including an ex-lover for whom she betrayed her closest friend — an act that may or may not have played a part in the friend’s subsequent suicide.
Nessa is distracted from the crises engulfing her personal life by the most demanding project of her curatorial career — the proposed acquisition of the personal effects and remaining unsold works of the late sculptor, Robert Locke, who has been the focus of Nessa’s academic research. The prize piece of the collection is Locke’s most famous work, the “Chalk Sculpture,” an abstract depiction of a pregnant woman which became a symbol of fertility in the popular imagination, attracting desperate women from across the country to flock to the Lockes’ house where the statue is stored.
The acquisition is imperilled, however, when a woman named Melanie Doerr comes forward claiming that she was largely responsible for the creation of the Chalk Sculpture and that Locke’s own contributions were not modelled on a photograph of his pregnant wife, as he had frequently claimed, but on Melanie herself. While Melanie’s demand that the gallery attribute the work to her is angrily contested by Locke’s wife and daughter, Nessa has previously uncovered evidence that Locke was far from honest in public interviews and begins to suspect that his family are concealing something momentous from her.
As the controversy about the sculpture spirals out of control, Nessa’s private and professional lives begin to nightmarishly intersect when the adult son of her dead friend and her own daughter become avid supporters of Melanie’s cause, further widening the familial rift.
Despite a shared atmosphere of anxiety and suspicion, The Art of Falling is a more stylistically conventional work than Dinosaurs on Other Planets, mostly shorn of the menacingly fantastical, often surreal, imagery that characterised McLaughlin’s debut. There is also an undeniably melodramatic quality to the narrative, which revolves around the kinds of confrontations between lovers, sexual rivals, and estranged friends that have become staples of soap opera.
What sets The Art of Falling apart, however, is the oblique dialogue between its rather histrionic narrative and the novel’s probing exploration of the nature of creativity, an exploration marked by a welcome frankness about the cant that so often surrounds art as well as a celebration of its raw emotive power. The idea that preoccupies the novel’s protagonists is the possibility that artists — and, by extension, people in general — might be shaped less by their life-long relationships than momentary eruptions of affection and desire, and, in turn, that we might be callously uncaring, even indifferent, towards those who have made us who we are.
While the celebration of Locke’s work for its “honesty, uniqueness, and independence of thought” is clearly dripping with irony, the precise nature of the influence of his wife and his lover on the creation of the Chalk Sculpture is left tantalisingly open. A similar refusal of neat resolutions is evident in the novel’s nuanced approach to the Kantian question of whether it can ever be moral to deceive someone to protect them from harm.
McLaughlin is a master of charting the volatility of characters’ perceptions of themselves, most notably in the depiction of how Nessa’s feelings about her marriage fluctuate wildly from a sense of blissful intimacy to one of dejected isolation. The Art of Falling showcases her particular talent for subtly evoking the opacity of social interactions — the ways in which language, verbal and bodily, often proves only an approximation of what we want to say, and how an ill-chosen word can send a conversation or even a relationship irreversibly awry.
For new writers to begin their publishing careers with short stories before progressing to novels is a well-worn path, recently trodden with remarkable sure-footedness, for instance, by Eley Williams. With McLaughlin, however, it is difficult not to hope that she will return to the short story form, for which her style is so well calibrated. The Art of Falling is nevertheless a gripping and thoughtful novel, taut with narrative suspense and brimming with emotional insight.
The Art of Falling, by Danielle McLaughlin, John Murray, RRP£16.99, 304 pages
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