“She used to think that if she lost in love, it would be – on a scale of one to ten – to an eight or a nine. Cora Wilson she would put as a four.” Thus Nessa reflects on her husband’s adultery with the bothersomely dowdy mother of their daughter’s best friend. This is the mood of half-bitter, half-spirited humour familiar from the previous work of Irish writer Danielle McLaughlin.
In the short stories with which she made her name McLaughlin wrote, as many of her compatriots do, about the cycle of boom and bust that has left a generation in Ireland untethered. McLaughlin is in her 40s, half a generation older than Sally Rooney or Naoise Dolan, and her stories are about people who have gained money and then lost it. As they fall financially, they find themselves in freefall in their personal lives as well. It’s not surprising that she likes to use the word “falling” in her titles. There was her 2015 New Yorker story “In the Act of Falling”, republished in her collection Dinosaurs on Other Planets. And now here’s her first novel, titled The Art of Falling.
Is there an art to falling? Parachutists get trained not so much in falling as in landing: in falling over safely. It’s this, perhaps, that Nessa must learn as she attempts to reground herself following her husband’s affair. When the book begins, she has been summoned to the school of her adolescent daughter, Jennifer, over concerns that she is bullying her former best friend. Nessa must steer her daughter to safety while learning to forgive her husband, all while her job as an art historian involves her in long discussions with the widow of an adulterous sculptor, Robert Locke, whom she has long admired. The narrative threads about the marriages twine against each other and it turns out there’s a third marriage in the mix. Nessa’s best friend killed herself in her 20s, shortly after Nessa had an affair with her husband. Suddenly, the affair threatens to be exposed, depriving her of the moral high ground.
In the wrong hands, this book could feel overdetermined: three marriages, and rather a complex plot involving Locke’s famous model of a pregnant woman, The Chalk Sculpture, which a woman who may have slept with him now claims to have made herself. McLaughlin’s writing is so dry and understated, though, that there’s a sense, even while the tightly packed plot neatly unpacks itself, that these are haphazard incidents in an unfurling life. What images there are tend to come through anecdotes recalled – Nessa imagines herself as one of the dogs she’s heard about whose impoverished families abandon them in a part of the city – so that even at its most reflective, the book has an unfussy, spoken quality. Deft description takes the form of casual observation: the sculptor’s daughter wears “the kind of clothes that elicited politeness from shop assistants”.
The result is that there are fewer fireworks, fewer set-piece scenes than we get in the stories. The strength of the book lies in its slow-building picture of the way that intimacy and estrangement can coincide. McLaughlin has always been good at writing alienated sexual encounters, and we have several between Nessa and Philip that show them to be at once intensely connected and frighteningly separate. At one point, in bed with her husband, Nessa has “a sense of being utterly alone and unreachable”. Yet this remains a marriage that we can believe in. The same is true of Nessa’s youthful friendship, movingly recalled in flashbacks, and her relationship with her daughter, who hovers rather frighteningly between being an ordinarily disgruntled teenager and something more disturbed and vindictive.
Some of the most powerful scenes portray arguments where each side feels that it is impossible to be heard. Truths are taken to be lies, lies left as lies despite the desire for truth, the good within both people somehow obdurately unseen. Faced with the paralysis within her marriage, Nessa can feel as though the fall will have no safe landing. Yet what is revealed is that there are forms of communication more trustworthy than talking, that the accrual of time matters, that love may, curiously and inexplicably, be revealed as a given.
It can be hard, now, to make a case for the old-fashioned middle-class novel of adultery, though a lot of readers are still middle-class and married. Through her acute and thoughtful take on issues of truth-telling, McLaughlin reminds us that the novel remains a good mode to investigate our relationship to truth, in part because as a made-up form it remains flexible in its idea of truth. The opening sentence of the novel is the motto from Jennifer’s school: “To be rather than to seem”. Being and seeming are both put brilliantly in question in this moving and quietly uplifting book.
• The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin is published by John Murray (RRP £16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.