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Book reviews


By Emma Donoghue

Publisher: Little, Brown, 277 pages

ISBN: 978-1844083015

THERE are some things we just don’t talk about. Like being gay (in Malaysia, anyway) or being in love with someone you’re not supposed to fall for. Emma Donoghue dishes these issues out, without a blink, in 19 stories about life, love, and relationships.

Team Men tells the tale of a schoolboy who discovers his sexuality on the football pitch. In Oops, a man feels responsible for accidentally mucking up his friends’ contraceptive devices! And in Expecting, a woman fails to correct a man who thinks she is pregnant, and the consequences start to hound her more than she expects.

In all these stories, Donoghue strives to illustrate the crazy things people do in life. The situations are bizarre but they’re also highly believable. Think Seinfeld but with characters as varied as a woman with a hair on her chin, a man who wants to pull it out, a pastor, a couple that loves dogs more than children, and lesbian writers in love.

Donoghue has a knack for depicting the absurdities we face in everyday life simply by describing that slice of life. The result is a collection of parodies that makes us laugh at ourselves and makes us consider ironies that we often only notice in hindsight.

The book is divided into five sections: babies, domesticity, strangers, desire, and death. The plots don’t run deep but they capture the essence of the human condition. Stories that stand out are those on relationships, babies and writing (in the strangers section), the last perhaps drawing draw on the author’s own experiences.

As a literary historian, Donoghue wrote Passions between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801. And in lesbian fiction, she has a string of awards to her name. As for children, she has two of her own. So she knows of what she writes, obviously.

Speaking in Tongues is a love story of sorts between a thirty-something woman writer and a 17-year-old girl described through an unusual series of flashbacks and poetry. While Donoghues’s style is sparse and crisp, her sentences sometimes bring out qualities in her characters that make you want to stop and listen to them.

As the woman protagonist prepares to give a reading to an audience that contains her admirer, she says, “I knew the poem off by heart, but tonight I had to look down for safety, every few lines.” Of their subsequent encounter, she says, “There was a script, of course. No matter how spontaneous it may feel, there’s always an unwritten script.” While the story may be about lesbian lovers, the theme Donoghue puts forth is that of loss and love, and what could have been, which could apply to any relationship, conventional or not.

In the title story, a woman travels half way round the world to fulfil her dreams of becoming a mother – with the help of her friend’s husband. A seemingly sticky subject, but Donoghue handles it with the ease of someone who knows her stuff, particularly when it comes to matters of “self-insemination”.

WritOr, a story about a writer-in-residence, and his struggle with the novelist wannabes he sees every day is just as insightful. “Clearly, writing was not an ordinary hobby like winemaking or kung fu,” the protagonist notes. “It attracted the most vulnerable people: the strange, the antisocial, the sad. Some were struggling with addictions or mysterious debilitating illnesses; others wrote endless versions of their childhood traumas.”

In the foreword to one of his collections, acclaimed short-story writer and novelist, Kurt Vonnegut points out “the peculiar and beneficial effect a short story can have on us, which makes it different from a novel or movie or play or TV show.”

In not so few words, he suggests that the short story is a kind of meditation “catnap” during which a person fires his brains up to make sense of the “26 phonetic symbols, 10 Arabic numerals and perhaps eight punctuation marks” – like you are doing now – and then for 10 minutes or so, finds an escape from the day’s anxieties. “His pulse and breathing slow down, his troubles drop away.”

Similarly, Donoghue’s Touchy Subjects provides the reader with an escape – and an entertaining one it is, into a world where people do the darndest things. The simplistic style may not garner bouquets from literary purists, but it’s an easy and entertaining read.

These 10-minute tales serve as good fillers when you’re waiting for someone or sitting in a train. You may smile, you may cringe, or you may discover some deep revelation about life. But even if you do not, you’ll find some kind of solace in knowing you’re not alone when it comes to embarrassing moments, difficult questions and situations that make you go, “Oops!”