A CAT­A­LOGUE OF SMALL PAINS

Meghan L. Dowl­ing, Univer­sity of New Or­leans Press (JAN­UARY) Soft­cover $18.95 (250pp), 978-1-60801-167-4, LIT­ER­ARY FIC­TION

Foreword Reviews - - Foresight Women’s Issues -

“Re­mem­ber­ing is the lie of a thread pulled through time back­wards,” yet Meghan L. Dowl­ing’s pro­tag­o­nist, Cather­ine, is de­ter­mined to re­veal the multi­gen­er­a­tional legacy of en­mity be­tween sis­ters in her New Eng­land fam­ily. Over the span of a cen­tury, these women have clubbed to­gether and clubbed each other’s hearts with a bru­tal­ity par­tic­u­lar to sib­lings. A novel that reads like a prose poem, A Cat­a­logue of Small Pains traces its story with such con­vinc­ing hu­man­ity that its fic­tions could be mis­taken for doc­u­men­tary truth.

In a novel that could eas­ily ven­er­ate nos­tal­gia, Cather­ine is sus­pi­cious of all me­mories. Mem­ory’s skips, jumps, and re­con­struc­tions are cap­tured through equal parts in­ter­ven­tion and omis­sion. Be­gin­ning with her own re­la­tion­ship to her older sis­ter, she dis­man­tles each gen­er­a­tion’s sto­ries, skip­ping through time, var­i­ous per­spec­tives, pho­to­graphs, and other ev­i­dence to over­turn ac­cepted fam­ily mytholo­gies and long-held si­lences alike. Dowl­ing con­structs a his­toric­ity for these char­ac­ters us­ing nar­ra­tives, pho­tos, and ex­cerpts of var­i­ous out­side doc­u­ments, from re­li­gious tracts to ed­u­ca­tional pam­phlets to movies. A pho­to­graph’s cap­tion notes, “What is left un­seen is left to the imag­i­na­tion,” and there’s a con­stant ten­sion be­tween the im­pli­ca­tions of a doc­u­mented, “ac­tual” past and the novel’s rev­e­la­tion of an imag­ined past’s emo­tional tex­tures and weight.

As lay­ers of fam­ily dys­func­tion are peeled back, it be­comes clear these women ex­ist in a sphere of hov­er­ing, un­ac­knowl­edged, gen­dered vi­o­lence, the loom­ing shape of which al­ters them. Their “cat­a­logue of small pains” has been sub­li­mated and nor­mal­ized be­cause of their sex.

Be­gin­ning with its very ti­tle, Dowl­ing’s novel un­der­sells and, thus, per­fectly cap­tures the odi­ous, ev­ery­day na­ture of its women’s tri­als and their at­tend­ing vi­o­la­tions. A Cat­a­logue of Small Pains is a small, com­mon story, and that’s the trou­ble of it all.

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