Review: Cork author’s riveting debut novel

The first novel by Cork writer Danielle McLaughlin is much anticipated — and lives up to the expectation, says GRAINNE McGUINNESS
Review: Cork author’s riveting debut novel

Author Danielle McLaughlin.

DANIELLE McLaughlin’s debut novel, The Art Of Falling, is one of the most anticipated releases of 2021.

The Cork author is a previous winner of the Windham-Campbell Prize, one of the world’s most lucrative literary awards, and earned much critical praise for her debut collection of short stories, Dinosaurs on Other Planets.

Published in Ireland by The Stinging Fly Press in 2015, Anne Enright said of the collection that “it will stay with us for a long time”.

Now Ms McLaughlin’s first novel will be published next week by John Murray in the UK and Ireland, having been released in the U.S last month.

As The Art Of Falling opens, Nessa McCormack’s marriage is coming back together again after her husband’s affair.

She is excited to be in charge of a retrospective art exhibition for a beloved artist, the renowned late sculptor Robert Locke. But the arrival of two enigmatic outsiders imperils both her personal and professional worlds.

A chance encounter with an old friend threatens to expose a betrayal Nessa thought she had long put behind her and, at work, an odd woman comes forward with a mysterious connection to Robert Locke’s life and his most famous work, the Chalk Sculpture.

From the opening pages, Ms McLaughlin paints a picture of a woman whose life is off-balance in many ways, even if the cracks are well-camouflaged from the outside.

Her husband Philip’s affair is still reverberating through family life, causing friction in their teenage daughter Jennifer’s school life and the mother-daughter relationship. Nessa and Philip’s marriage is superficially on track, but the hurt and pain of the betrayal lies close to the surface.

The hum of financial strain also forms an undercurrent to Nessa’s thoughts and plans. However, Nessa’s sense of grievance is challenged when she is drawn into a meeting with the now-adult son of a former friend, forcing her to face her own past actions.

At work, her patience is tested by the wife and daughter of Locke, with whom she works closely to prepare the exhibition.

When a woman, Melanie, arrives to cast doubt on the story of the Chalk Sculpture, the reaction of the surviving Locke family members leads Nessa to doubt what they are telling her, even as she herself rejects Melanie’s version of events.

The various threads of Nessa’s life pull together slowly in this beautifully written novel. The relationships between characters are tested at key moments, as secrets are exposed and Nessa and other characters are forced to reassess their versions of the past.

Beyond the surface tension of the plot in The Art of Falling, McLaughlin looks at the power balance in relationships, and how couples and families structure themselves based on the stories they tell about their lives.

New information that threatens these stories is rejected and covered up, even if this protects individuals who scarce deserve protection. Decisions are made about whose needs are to be prioritised, be it Locke and his art or Philip and his career.

Set is contemporary Cork, The Art Of Falling is a riveting debut, whose taut writing and emotional heft more than justify the pre-publication anticipation.

In addition to her writing, Ms McLaughlin is a co-founder of the monthly Fiction at the Friary event, currently taking place online due to Covid.

On Sunday, January 31, she will read from The Art of Falling and chat to fellow writers Eimear Ryan and Madeline D’Arcy. To join the event, which begins at 3pm, go to facebook. com/FictionattheFriary.

The Art Of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin is published by John Murray on February 4.

See next week’s WOW! magazine for an interview with the author.

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