This Week in Short Fiction


Irish author Danielle McLaughlin didn’t start writing fiction until 2010, but in the years since she has amassed an impressive collection of writing awards, including the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen International Short Story Competition, and has twice placed stories in the New Yorker. Last year, her debut short story collection Dinosaurs on Other Planets was published across the pond by notable Irish independent publisher The Stinging Fly, and now, this coming Tuesday, the much anticipated collection will be released state-side by Random House. This kind of six-year rise from unknown to New Yorker to transatlantic story collection is the stuff of every emerging writer’s wildest fantasy, but one look at McLaughlin’s tight, potent prose and elegantly disquieting stories will reveal that there’s no mystery to her success.

Take for example the title story of the collection, McLaughlin’s first New Yorker story, published in 2014. From the opening paragraph, “Dinosaurs on Other Planets” thrums with tension beneath its pastoral setting like a low note almost too deep to hear. The meticulously rendered setting is a house in rural North Cork where the forest gradually creeps into the yard and wind turbines turn slowly on a nearby hill. McLaughlin imbues the setting with a lurking, watchful quality—the barbed wire at the edge of the dense forest, the towering turbines’ ever-present noise.

“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.”

“Those things have caused no end of trouble,” Kate said. “Our neighbors say they can’t sleep at night with the noise of the blades.”

“Perhaps not enough goats?” he said.

The protagonist, Kate, is a woman of fifty-two whose much older husband Coleman has slowly and without comment withdrawn from her, relocating his clothing and belongings into the empty bedroom of their son who now lives in Japan until they live in two separate bedrooms. At the time of the story, the couple has not slept in the same bed for a year. Then, their daughter Emer calls to say she’s coming for a visit from London, bringing her son Oisín in tow. Not wanting her daughter and grandson to think anything is amiss in her marriage, Kate moves all of Coleman’s things back into their bedroom while he’s out:

Next morning, she started with his suits. She waited until he’d gone outside, then carried them from John’s old room to their bedroom, across the landing. The wardrobe there had once held everything, but now when she pushed her coats and dresses along the rail they resisted, swung back at her, jostling and shouldering, as if they’d been breeding and fattening this past year. For an hour she went back and forth between the rooms with clothes, shoes, books…

Colman had allowed junk to accumulate—magazines, spent batteries, a cracked mug on the windowsill. She got a sack and went around the room, picking things up. The lathe and wood-turning tools—chisels, gouges, knives—were on a desk in the corner, and she packed them away in a box. She put aside Colman’s pajamas and dressed the bed with fresh linen, the blue Teddy bears jolly on the duvet, the rabbit propped on a chair alongside. Standing back to admire it, she noticed Colman in the doorway. He had his hands on his hips and was staring at the sack.

“I haven’t thrown anything out,” she said.

The scene, like so many others in the story, holds many emotions at once. It carries an ache of loneliness and empty-nester longing at the same time as the low boil of Kate’s frustration and defiance. And then, at the end, the buzz of fear, the reflex explanation. McLaughlin excels at writing emotional dichotomy, these complex and quiet battles that never breach the surface. As such, “Dinosaurs” has a particular space-bending quality to it, the feeling that the story has deeper depths than its word count could possibly contain.

When Emer and Oisín arrive, they are not alone. Emer has brought her new boyfriend Pavel, who is significantly older and of whom neither her parents have heard before. Kate and Coleman are, as you can imagine, less than pleased. It’s a familiar setup for family drama, but McLaughlin navigates it in such a way, with layers of complexity and beautifully disquieting imagery and tension on the edge of snapping, that makes it entirely new. “Dinosaurs on Other Planets” is an engrossing and quietly haunting exhibition of true talent, and it’s fair to suspect the rest of the collection will be more of the wonderfully unsettling same. Here’s hoping that McLaughlin’s six years of fiction writing will continue on to many, many more.

Claire Burgess’s short fiction has appeared in Third Coast, Hunger Mountain, and PANK online, among others. Her stories have received special mentions in the Pushcart Prize and Best American anthologies, but haven’t actually made it into one yet. She’s a graduate of the Vanderbilt University MFA program, where she co-founded Nashville Review. She lives in Pittsburgh by way of the deep South and says things on Twitter @Clairabou_. More from this author →