In White Ink by Elske Rahill review – the dark side of motherhood

From young mothers to aging brides, the characters in this exhilarating short story collection are motivated by repressed feelings which barely show on the page but lead to terrible consequences

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, aging 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 bored mother, snobbishly trying to keep up appearances while 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.

I can not think of a short story writer who is more precise and grave in her laying out of that theme. Only a woman knows, Rahill seems to be saying, what mothering means, what she must do, what she has done. The title story is a heart-stopping rendition of mother love, overwhelming and exhausting and exhilarating, a fevered report from the front line of childbirth and childcare. “There you are,” the woman addresses the infant before her, “sleeping in your buggy with buttery thighs and feet like handkerchief knots ... Oh, now I have you – there you are opening your eyes ... ”

It’s only well into the narrative that we see the snake coiled within the infant’s swaddling wraps: a quietly dangerous father who is all smiles and 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 by standing his wife in front of a Christmas tree so “the branches stuck out on either side of me and the needles poked my back”. A few pages pass and then he is abusing her more clearly. “He puts his foot in the door and asks me if I am trying to make him hit me. ‘You’d love that,’ he says. ‘Wouldn’t you?’”

The father in “Bride” is threatening in a different way, a shadow in the corner of a story that’s all about custody and intimacy. It portrays a pretty little blond girl, her father who collects child pornography, and Anne, the mother who stands between them, both protective and complicit. “In any case,” Anne thinks, “it really couldn’t have been so bad, what they found, or they would have locked him up.” She knows, like her daughter knows, what’s going on – though her words can’t say.

The kind detective kept trying to hold her in his gaze. ‘As young as seven,’ he said. ‘Do you understand, Anne? Definitely children, Anne.’ She had nodded but she couldn’t quite see it. Eleven, maybe, because some eleven-year-olds could look sixteen ...

Snobbery and secrets, appearances and the dark matter of things – this has often been the stuff of Irish literature, and in James Joyce as in Eimear McBride, there’s a lilting music to sentences that speak of awful things. In “A Wife” Rahill references Joyce’s “A Mother” from the outset, as a middle-aged woman plans a “Brides Again” evening for her overfed and overdressed acquaintances. With “her head swivelling about doorways and her expansive round haunches”, which “stuck out like an ostrich’s plumage”, she goes about making arrangements for them all to climb into approximations of the dresses they wore to be married in and sip champagne at an overpriced reception. This ghastly wonderful story is like so many in a collection that follows the crucial rule to show and not tell.

In his famous set of lectures about short story writing, The Lonely Voice, Frank O’Connor talked about the difference between what he called “applied” and “natural” short stories; between the writer not so much “keeping his eye on the object”, as O’Connor puts it, as on some grand scheme for the story to generate its effects. The difference speaks for itself. In White Ink captures women and mothers caught inside their lives; Rahill’s art sets them free into ours.

• Kirsty Gunn’s short story collection Infidelities is published by Faber. To order In White Ink for £16.14 (RRP £18.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Contributor

Kirsty Gunn

The GuardianTramp

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