Wednesday 21 November 2018

Stories of motherhood draw you in then fling you to the gutter

Short ­Stories: In White Ink, Elske Rahill, Head of Zeus, paperback, 399 pages, £8.99

Rahill: A withering eye for the ridiculous
Rahill: A withering eye for the ridiculous
In White Ink

Maggie Armstrong

Valerie knows she is not what people call a 'natural mother'. She is not made for it, the way some women are, with slings and breast pumps and all that. "But she does her best," writes Elske Rahill in 'Toby', the horrifying opening short story in her first collection.

Mothers, and fathers, do their best in Rahill's microworlds, but their best is not good enough, and in these 11 stories, you find as many vulnerable little urchins as wan and strung-out mums.

The 'white ink' of the title is a reference to breast milk taken from the French feminist theorist Hélène Cixous, quoted in the epigraph: "A woman is never far from 'mother'… she writes in white ink." Mother's milk is sweet but can go rancid. These stories draw you into their maternal arms then fling you to the gutter, leaving you baffled by the troubles you've witnessed in their deceptive warmth.

The Irish characters we meet along the way seem to be fighting the opposing desires that go with having to look after small people. Damaged souls look quietly for fulfilment. In 'Playing House', a single mother arrives in new rental accommodation, only to experience an eerie sexual frisson with her landlord over Chinese. 'A Wife' describes the efforts of a harried school mum to organise a glamorous party, and how it all goes wrong. In the fantastical 'Terraforming', a young mum chooses a new kind of suicide and leaves her son to go to Mars. 'Bride' shows one mother trying to survive the distraught aftermath of having her husband convicted of child sex abuse.

Some of the stories are much stronger than others. The title tale traces innocence to bitter experience, through pregnancy, birth and domestic destruction. Written by a mother as a kind of letter to her son which he will never read, the narrator chronicles her abuse ("your mummy is a bitch, isn't she?") with detached sorrow and fierce love. This remarkable story sweeps dreamily over years of legal and hospital drama and somehow remains short.

The collection comes three years since Elske Rahill's precocious debut novel, Between Dog and Wolf. A Dubliner, Rahill has a keen sense of the varieties of sexual desire, of social inequality, grief, and a withering eye for the ridiculous. She can be funny: the air hostess with "turquoise eyelids and big crunchy hair"; the Irish wedding, with "ranks of satin-bound buttocks", the groom "a lanky thing who kept touching his bride's spine", the bride "tired and ill, walking up the aisle dressed like a little girl".

Short stories are perfect for this age of bewildering distraction, because you achieve something when you read one.

Rahill's stories will kiss you goodnight and then give you nightmares.

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