Emma Donoghue has a talent for uncovering the vagaries of human behavior in her work, adding ironic insights to the predicaments of her characters that are intuitive and uniquely her own. In the title story, “Touchy Subjects,” the reader gets a preview of the gems to come, as a thirty-eight-year old career woman resorts to the assistance of her best friend’s husband to accomplish a pregnancy, the window of opportunity rapidly closing. The friend’s husband arrives, empty jar in hand, but what follows is hilarious and perfectly awful, one woman’s strange appointment with her destiny.
The stories are transitional, arranged in five stages: Babies, Domesticity, Strangers, Desire and Death, an evolving chronology of relationships that range from Ireland to New York to Canada, no territory untouched by drama.
With trenchant observations, Donoghue prods the tender underbelly of human frailty, her characters caught in self-doubt, singular complications, and self-seeking behavior in search of connections. Relentlessly dissecting the common denominator of relationships, straight and gay, the author keeps her finger on the steady pulse of yearning that defines these stories.
The sequence of stories is carefully structured for maximum effect, interactions that define the various stages of development. Babies is about tentative beginnings, the impulses that alter the course of a life (“Expecting,” “The Man Who Wrote on Beaches”); Domesticity unveils advanced relationships, people caught in the complexities of daily frustrations, decisions and miscommunications, the small irritations that once were endearing now wearing thin, expectations denied, the infinite grinding down of hopes into less than what was anticipated (“Lavender’s Blue,” “The Cost of Things”).
Strangers portends escape into more neutral territory, breaking from habit to find respite in unfamiliar geography, at least temporarily, exposing personal conceits, characters forced into personal insights (“The Sanctuary of Hands,” WritOr”); Desire speaks for itself, of yearning and angst and disappointment (“Speaking in Tongues,” The Welcome”); and finally, Death, endings and sometimes beginnings, perceptions turned upside down by reality and the need to adapt to changed circumstances (“The Dormition of the Virgin,” “Enchantment’).
Touchy Subjects is more than a collection of random stories; indeed, the author follows a theme, a progression viewed through the eyes of those who muddle through the passages of their lives. In a kaleidoscope of humanity writ large on a canvas as intricate as those who people the pages, there are moments of hilarity, sweetness, insight and revelation, not to mention absurdity.
Observant, incisive and compassionate, Donoghue masters both form and content; whether mining the past or mapping the edges of the present, this is a writer who never disappoints.