Dark do­mes­tic­ity

The Guardian Weekly - - Books - Kirsty Gunn

In White Ink by Elske Rahill Apollo, 304pp

Short sto­ries can be less about sto­ry­telling than some­thing harder to pin down. Per­haps emo­tional pitch, or com­pres­sion of char­ac­ter: one vivid el­e­ment that we hold in our minds long af­ter the fic­tion is fin­ished, re­mind­ing us al­most phys­i­cally, like a bruise from a knock, that a tale has been told. In Ir­ish au­thor Elske Rahill’s thickly con­cen­trated de­but col­lec­tion, the drama is like toxic shock: an ef­fect of, rather than a means to, some kind of far-reach­ing dam­age. Rahill’s young mothers, age­ing brides and griev­ing par­ents are mo­ti­vated by re­pressed feel­ings that barely show on the page yet have ter­ri­ble con­se­quences. Though at first her writ­ing can seem rem­i­nis­cent of oth­ers who bring a dark twist to do­mes­tic­ity, such as Claire Kee­gan, Sarah Hall or Lucy Cald­well, Rahill’s work has a more dan­ger­ous edge to it that comes down to her fo­cus not so much on plot as the ar­range­ment of de­tails. There is one story in In White Ink, the first, that re­lies on a vi­cious event at its cen­tre for dra­matic ef­fect; the rest mas­ter­fully man­age quiet blood­let­ting on their own.

Toby, that first story, is the least in­ter­est­ing. A mother, con­sumed by anx­i­ety and sus­pi­cion – her hus­band is prob­a­bly hav­ing an af­fair – takes out her feel­ings on the fam­ily dog. It’s a pre­dictable arc, and a shame that this is our in­tro­duc­tion to the range of sce­nar­ios and char­ac­ters that fol­low, all writ­ten in “the white ink”, sig­ni­fy­ing the mother’s milk that fem­i­nist the­o­rist Hélène Cixous de­scribes as the in­evitable source of all fe­male writ­ing. Her words – “a woman is never far from ‘mother’” – ap­pear as a fron­tispiece to this col­lec­tion.

The ti­tle story is a heart-stop­ping ren­di­tion of mo moth­erly love, over­whelm­ing and ex­haust­ing and ex ex­hil­a­rat­ing, a fevered re­port from the front line of child­birth and child­care. “There you are,” the wo woman ad­dresses the in­fant be­fore her, “sleep­ing in your buggy with but­tery thighs and feet like ha hand­ker­chief knots … Oh, now I have you – there you are open­ing your eyes …”

I It’s only well into the nar­ra­tive that we see the sna snake coiled within the in­fant’s swad­dling wraps: a qu qui­etly dan­ger­ous fa­ther who is all smiles and bon bon­homie as he works to un­wrap his tiny son from his mother’s arms. “We’re preg­nant,” he says to the bus con­duc­tor, try­ing to dodge the fare. A few pag­pages pages pass p and then he is abus­ing her more clearly. “HHe “He puts his foot in the door and asks me if I am ttry try­ing to make him hit me. ‘You’d love that,’ he ssay says. ‘Wouldn’t you?’”

T The fa­ther in Bride is threat­en­ing in a diff dif­fer­ent way, a shadow in the cor­ner of a story tha that’s all about cus­tody and in­ti­macy. It por­tray trays a pretty lit­tle blonde girl, her fa­ther who ccol col­lects child pornog­ra­phy, and Anne, the mo mother who stands be­tween them, both pro­tec tec­tive and com­plicit.

S Snob­bery and se­crets, ap­pear­ances and the dar dark matter of things – this has of­ten been the stu stuff of Ir­ish lit­er­a­ture. In White Ink cap­tures wo women and mothers caught in­side their lives; Rah Rahill’s art sets them free into ours.

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