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Touchy SubjectsReview - Touchy Subjects
Stories
by Emma Donoghue
Harcourt, 2006
Review by Tony O'Brien
Aug 15th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 33)

The title of this collection of Emma Donaghue's short stories applies to both the protagonists and to the subject matter of the stories: sensitive individuals thrown into situations that are either taboo, or which must be approached with a degree of delicacy. The book is divided into five themed sections, dealing with subjects ranging through birth marriage and death, taking in desire and the accidental relationships that occur in the course of a life. The book is a fictional survey of common life situations, with a variety of settings and characters. Short stories are what they are, though, and Donaghue has not attempted to integrate these disparate lives into any metanarrative other than that of the unprepared individual thrown into circumstances not of their making.

There is a considerable diversity in this collection. Some of the stories (like Through the night, and The cost of things) are straightforward uncomplicated narratives of ordinary situations, providing a clear sighted vignette that invite us into a life for a brief period, then politely show us out, the effect being rather like being shown through an open house be a realtor. In others though (like Pluck, The Sanctuary of Hands, and The Welcome, it is as if the residents are at home, and we get under their skins in ways that leave us a little unsettled.

Donoghue's writing is plain and engaging. There is enough imagery and description to situate us clearly in places as dissimilar as Florence and Louisiana, and plenty of dialogue to allow us to hear her characters. She has clearly taken the writing advice dished out by the writer in residence who is the subject of WritOr although she does slip in a few cumbersome adverbs (like 'confusedly' and 'exhaustedly') and in a few stories (Necessary Noise and The Cost of Things) the narrative seems truncated rather neatly, rather than working towards a more satisfying denouement.

Donoghue apparently has something of a following as a 'gay writer', a term I find quite meaningless. This is not a reflection on Donoghue who needs no such empty label. She clearly has an affinity for gay characters, especially women, and this collection includes a couple of fine examples. Speaking in Tongues is charged with sexual craving as it simultaneously follows two erotic encounters of the same woman, seventeen years apart. In a very compact story, Donaghue manages to explore both adolescent and adult sexual desire, and in the process reveals characters that are much more than devices for a good romp. Speaking in Tongues is a warm and poignant story about fully realized characters who matter. The Welcome is set in a feminist commune where gender identity is indeterminate and one's only obligation is to realize one's own sexuality. As a commentator, the naÔve, inexperienced Luce provides an insightful analyst. If the commune's idealistic standards and expectations of sexual self exploration do not create enough tension, the whole story goes up a gear following a violent outburst from its newest member, the enigmatic JJ. There are other references to gay sexuality in the book, notably in Team Men, although that story about two adolescents is a lot more understated than Speaking in Tongues or The Welcome. There is plenty in all of these stories to mark Donaghue as a canny and wry observer not just of gay issues, but of life in general.

There were a few stories that I thought missed their mark. WritOr follows a writer in residence whose days are filled with appointments with no-talent dreamers who seek only his anointment of their truly execrable attempts to write. The problem is that the reader gets about as fed up as the writer, and wishes the whole thing over. In Oops a fumble in the bathroom during the night leads to an amusing complication. This very brief incident has its full realization years later, but I found it hard to cast the original tension that far forward. Do they know it's Christmas takes as its central characters two academics and their canine fur children Proust, Gide, and Mallarme. This is one of those 'Christmas is the worst time of the year' stories. As forty three year old Trevor moans that his 'children' have been unfairly displaced by some real ones (albeit Australian) my sympathies were with his father, who points out that at least his granddaughters don't climb on his arm and start humping it.

Choosing a favorite story from among this collection is made a little difficult by the variety on show. I liked Pluck for the sustained and credible tension created by a single facial hair. And Good Deed is a powerful story of moral conflict wrought from the simple ingredient of a chance observation. The story makes for uncomfortable reading at times, and Donoghue doesn't let readers off with a neat resolution. In the end I found Sanctuary of Hands the most rewarding. A woman seeking solace through travel finds herself in the Pyrenees, where she visits a troglodyte cave. If she is discomfited by having to edge into the darkness with a party of intellectually disabled tourists, she is mortified when she asked to take one of them by the hand. This is a complex and satisfying tale based on an accidental encounter. I found it both moving and memorable.

Emma Donaghue is certainly a talented writer. These stories are scattered over the globe, and have the enticing aspect that you are never sure where each new story will take you. It might be a hotel bedroom where a woman is trying to conceive with donor sperm; it might be the brackish swamps of Louisiana. Wherever it is, Donaghue will prove an informative and reliable guide. If there are one or two stories here that don't achieve the standard of the best, I'm tempted to say, c'est la vie. This is a fine collection.

 

© 2006 Tony O'Brien

 

Tony O'Brien is a short story writer and lecturer in mental health nursing at The University of Auckland, New Zealand: a.obrien@auckland.ac.nz


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