Review

Touchy Subjects: Stories

by Emma Donoghue



Bestselling Irish native Emma Donoghue (SLAMMERKIN) delivers a
top-notch collection of 19 short stories featuring a variety of
everyday characters caught in the middle of the unexpected. On the
surface, each offering is grouped according to one of five themes:
Babies, Domesticity, Strangers, Desire, and Death. On a deeper
level, these broadly defined boundaries intersect throughout many
of the stories, as they often do in reality, creating a series of
snapshots that are both unique and true to life.

Although there isn't a dud in her bunch, Donoghue shines most
brightly when confronting issues of sex and gender. As seen in some
of her previous works (HOOD, LIFE MASK), the trajectory of
unrequited homosexual love is aptly explored here in moments that
are so vulnerable and pure that they virtually explode with
unresolved tension. In "Speaking in Tongues," a long-held thirst is
finally quenched yet ultimately discarded after 17-year-old-Lee and
34-year-old poetess Sylvia have a one-night stand in the back of
Sylvia's van. In "Team Men," two football players have a brief
affair and must navigate the consequences when one wants to come
out publicly and the other doesn't. Both stories highlight the
rawness of desire and the inevitable heartbreak that occurs when
separate wants can't (or don't) align.

Along similar lines, "The Cost of Things" and "The Man Who Wrote on
Beaches" focus on two very different pairs and their shared
inability to see eye to eye. In "The Cost of Things," a seemingly
unbreakable relationship implodes after the two involved can't
agree on how much their kitten's life (i.e. their relationship) is
worth. In "The Man Who Wrote on Beaches," a man feels a sudden,
joyous urge to become a father after finding God --- only his wife
is now 42 and not in the mood to change diapers. It is the breaking
point in a relationship that Donoghue finds so intriguing, and her
repeated depictions of this moment are filled with a harsh
authenticity that is liable to make many readers cringe in
reluctant recognition, despite their varied circumstances.

There are thankfully a few humorous vignettes in this otherwise
moody collection. "Pluck" reveals a husband's nagging obsession
with a tiny hair growing underneath his wife's unbeknownst chin;
the hilariously dry "Do They Know It's Christmas" features an
academic couple and their collective indignation over the banning
of their precious dogs --- Proust, Gide and Mallarmé --- from
an annual family gathering; and the embarrassingly funny "Touchy
Subjects" explores awkwardness at its best, when a husband agrees
to be a sperm donor for his wife's best friend and must confront
head on (pun intended) the trials of getting it up for a woman who
isn't his partner. Although all touch upon the serious, these three
selections show a different side of Donoghue and illustrate her
versatility as a writer.

Donoghue's gift is her ability to grab the reader immediately and
not let go until the events being described run their natural
course. The stories in TOUCHY SUBJECTS take a crack at everything
from pregnancy to marriage to the fleetingly intimate connection
between strangers, and they do so beautifully and genuinely. Fans
of her longer historical novels will relish in her clear mastery of
the shorter form.

Reviewed by Alexis Burling on January 23, 2011

Touchy Subjects: Stories
by Emma Donoghue

  • Publication Date: June 1, 2006
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • ISBN-10: 0151013861
  • ISBN-13: 9780151013869