The Art of Falling, by Danielle McLaughlin, John Murray, 298 pp, £13.99, ISBN: 978-1473613676
Our protagonist’s quiet fury sizzles in the background throughout this novel, the first by Danielle McLaughlin, following her widely acclaimed short story collection, Dinosaurs on Other Planets, which was the recipient of several prestigious awards. It is inevitable that expectations raised by this success may overshadow this move into a new genre.
Forty-something art historian Nessa McCormack is suffering the repercussions of her husband, Philip’s, recent affair with Cora, who happens to be the mother of her sixteen-year-old daughter, Jennifer’s, best friend. And to add insult to injury, this woman is not even that attractive – in fact she’s rather dowdy. When we first meet Nessa, she’s been called to a meeting with her daughter’s teacher, with murmurings of Jennifer being withdrawn, and more worryingly, engaged in bullying. Nessa’s dry delivery, which is central to her character, is evident from this early stage – her rejoinder, “She’s a teenager, withdrawn is the factory setting”, had me quietly cheering, firmly in her corner.
Nessa is in the process of curating an exhibition for the Elmes Gallery in Cork, where she works. At the exhibition’s heart is “The Chalk Sculpture”, hewn by the late artist Robert Locke, supposedly as a homage to his then pregnant wife, Eleanor, now in her eighties. In times past, the piece was seen as a totem for fertility and women would travel to touch the sculpture’s swelling belly, in the hopes of falling pregnant. It’s not a straightforward job for Nessa, as she must make frequent visits to Eleanor and her daughter’s home in Tragumna, to negotiate with the two about Locke’s exhibition while trying to gain more information on the artist through stilted Dictaphone interviews. The pair could not be more intransigent and prickly, and to add to the stress of the job, a strange, older woman appears at the gallery one day and claims ownership of the iconic sculpture, insisting it was mostly her work, not Locke’s, and demanding proper acknowledgement in all promotional material. She firmly tells Nessa that this was all well-documented in Locke’s diaries, which his family bluntly insist never existed.
Slowly but surely, McLaughlin draws us into the anatomy of Nessa’s life – a life that was already unravelling but is now pitched into freefall, deeply resonating with the book’s title: Nessa desperately trying to ground herself as more and more things happen to destabilise her.
The past, never far from the narrative, is a constant in the story. There is the past of the artist Robert Locke’s life, his family, and his possible lovers, which the two women in Tragumna are reticent about revealing. The past also intrudes when, distractedly buying ingredients for tacos, Nessa bumps into an old friend she knew from London days. What follows, an excruciatingly awkward dinner party at which two others from her past also appear, is one of the memorable scenes of the novel.
Nessa’s architect husband Philip is not only a love rat, but also a money-fritterer, and does not elicit much regard. Indeed, there are times when her deferral to him over past wrongs doesn’t fit in with the woman I had observed back in that teacher’s office. Her bending over backwards to atone for something that happened before they even met, for instance, goes against the stronger Nessa previously witnessed. She does stand up to him though, at times, as when he was dithering about taking a trip with her when Jennifer was small and had developed a fever: when Philip fusses about asking the babysitter to administer meds, her riposte is, “It’s Calpol, Philip. It’s not like we’re asking her to perform a tracheotomy.” Moments like this reinforce Nessa’s dry wit, witnessed at several points in the narrative.
One of the joys of the writing is in the well-observed quotidian details – Nessa watching her dog, Bailey, “race along the edges of the riverbank, his belly and paws thick with mud, barking in delight, calling her to follow him”. The list of artisanal foods bought from a posh grocery – “fresh egg pasta, a baguette to spread with garlic butter, a half-pint of fresh raspberries”; the irrepressible urge Nessa has to curate, whatever the chaos of the situation in which she finds herself, “… she couldn’t help picturing how they might look in an exhibition space, the text of the card she would affix on the wall …”
A casual look at the plot before reading, with its well-trodden themes of middle-aged affairs, mid-life angst and parenthood, art and the ethics involved, might make some imagine something they’ve sped through for their book club – but McLaughlin’s story is so much more than this. Brief moments of high drama intermingle with journeys into the complex, foggy territory of the past, while a slow-burn reveal of several truths and satisfying introspection come together in layers to create a thought-provoking read that will stay with this reviewer long after reading its final lines.