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.