Book review: The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin
The Art of Falling - Danielle McLaughlin
Danielle McLaughlin's debut novel works on two levels - maybe more but let's stick with two for now for the sake of keeping a review of The Art of Falling simple. On one level, sadly, it's about the banalities of domestic life; sadly, I suppose because we all have to live with and deal with them. On another level however there's something else going on beneath the surface of all these domestic tensions, but even that could be said to be similarly banal, since anger, resentment, bitterness and disappointment all come as part of the package.
Lest that make it seem like The Art of Falling is a rather dull and tedious, there's always another way of viewing such matters and we all have different ways of getting through the little and big trials that life throws our way. Often it drives us to find solace, a sense of understanding and kinship with others or seek to find a way to express and elevate those difficult circumstances into something more tangible and manageable, and often that's through art. In the case of Nessa McCormack, there's a very hands-on connection with art, but unfortunately for her it seems to be making life even more difficult.
Living in a suburban middle-class area of Cork in Ireland, Nessa's domestic life is a struggle. She still hasn't come to terms with her husband's infidelity, an affair with the mother of their daughter's best friend. The situation is not just awkward from a personal and social aspect but almost intolerable, and it's had repercussions for the family and for their daughter at school.
Nora's work at an art gallery isn't going quite so well either, even though she has been lucky enough to have landed the prestigious acquisition of the legacy of Robert Locke, a Scottish-born artist with local connections. Unfortunately a dispute has arisen over the authorship of one of the artist's most famous pieces, a large work made of soft gypsum known as The Chalk Sculpture that is believed locally to have fertility powers. A Czech lady called Melanie Doerr has claimed that her hand created most of the work, something that is denied by Locke's family, who say they have never heard of this woman.
One significant point that is raised through the sculpture, which is central to much that subsequently follows, is that it is made of a material that is impermanent, that is believed to have been made with the idea that it will naturally wear down and eventually disintegrate. That's something that Nessa, who has invested so much personally in Locke, can't bear to imagine, perhaps because in some ways it also describes her own life - describes all our lives - as something that is impermanent, or in Nessa's case, rapidly disintegrating.
Her grip on life takes another unexpected turn when she is introduced to the 21 year old son of an old friend. His mother Amy committed suicide and her son wants to understand how this came about. Confronted with the past, suddenly all the certainties she has lived with are being reshaped before her eyes. Observing of Robert Locke's widow that "if the superstructure of clothes was taken away, Eleanor might disintegrate", or contemplating the aging process in the "slow gradual ruin of her own body" The Art of Falling seems to be very much a case of The Art of Falling Apart.
Context however is vital, and as the idea of Locke's work and it uncertain provenance suggests, the question of legacy also comes through as important here. Danielle McLaughlin's novel shows that the legacy we leave our children could be more than just an environmental mess; we have to be sure we don't also screw up their lives in other ways, tying them into our past mistakes or instilling a restricted way of looking at the world either, one that doesn't face up to the realities.
This is cleverly done, because initially Nessa's daughter Jennifer and her friend's son Luke come across as irritating and immature youths, but that view gradually changes as you realise that many of the problems they have and the reasons for their behaviour can be placed squarely on the shoulders of their parents. Melanie too is in some respects a victim of similar restrictive attitudes towards women, her contribution never likely to be acknowledged like many women written out of history. Rather than making this a feminist statement however, Melanie is a more ambiguous figure than that. The success of McLaughin's writing in The Art of Falling lies within such ideas, reflecting the complexities and layers of life rather than try to pin it down.