Nessa McCormack’s marriage is coming back together again after her husband’s affair. She is excited to be in charge of a retrospective art exhibit for one of Ireland’s most beloved and enigmatic artists, the late sculptor Robert Locke. But the arrival of two outsiders imperils both her personal and professional worlds: a chance encounter with an old friend threatens to expose a betrayal Nessa thought she had long put behind her, and at work, an odd woman comes forward claiming to be the true creator of Robert Locke’s most famous work, The Chalk Sculpture.
As Nessa finds the past intruding on the present, she must decide whether she can continue to live a lie – or whether she’s ready to face the consequences once everything is out in the open. In this gripping debut, Danielle McLaughlin reveals profound truths about love, power, and the secrets that rule us.
I picked up ‘The Art Of Falling’ because I loved the accuracy and compassion with which Danielle McLaughlin drew people in her short story collection ‘Dinosaurs On Other Planets’. I wanted to see how she used this ability in a novel rather than a short story. The outcome was fascinating.
To me, it seemed that although the story in ‘The Art Of Falling’ was quite propulsive, keeping me engaged by guessing at undisclosed secrets and wondering if knowns secrets would be exposed and if so, whether lives would be ruined or maybe even rejuvenated, it was a not a narrative-driven story. Nor was it really character-driven in the sense that is usually used, where the attributes of a character or characters determine their reaction to events and each other and thereby shape the plot. ‘The Art Of Falling’ felt like a sculpture of the main character, Ness McCormack. The three-dimensional image of her that the book presented was one that I needed to walk around and see from different angles and in different lights. Like a sculpture, it was something that I wanted to lay my hands on. It also seemed like something that I was being invited to bestow meaning on rather than being told what the meaning was.
The Nessa I saw in ‘The Art Of Falling’ was a woman whose life was on the cusp of changing in ways that she couldn’t control. As the book progressed, I felt that I, as the reader, understood her better than she did herself. I saw how she filtered her reality and how some of those filters defined her, even when they allowed her to deceive herself about her own nature and her impact on the people around her.
The story of her life that Nessa has built for herself in the almost two decades since she left home and went to St Martin’s art school in London, is a heavily edited one. Some of the edits are legacy ones, made by a very young woman who was not equipped to see herself clearly and left unchallenged. Some of the edits involve omitting things that put Nessa in an unfavourable light. These take more work, either in protecting secrets or suppressing unacknowledged guilt.
‘The Art Of Falling‘ captures Nessa at a point in her life where events beyond her control are making it harder and harder for her to sustain the story that she has always told herself about who she is and what she wants. It shows her leaning out into the gulf of an unknowable future and slowly losing her grip on her past and starting to fall into what comes next.
I spent a lot of time thinking about this book, both when I was reading it and when it was echoing in my head afterwards. It’s not a book where it’s easy to say, “This book is about…” and list the themes as bullet points. The themes are there but the book is more complicated and less didactic than that. For me, the main thing that I took away from the book was that
‘The Art Of Falling‘ tackles some big themes by examining the secrets, lies and truths that Nessa has woven into her personal story.
Some secrets are ones that only she knows and that she believes she can never share without devastating her life. These she’s buried so deep that they have started both to define her. To me, they seemed like scar tissue, only visible in certain lights and from certain angles, unexplained and inescapable.
Some of the secrets are ones she’s shared with others either through circumstances or disclosure. These secrets create an enforced intimacy that, the bigger the secret and the longer it is kept, become increasingly tainted by the fear of betrayal and concealed shame and guilt.
Nessa’s secrets generate lies. Lies to other people to keep her secrets hidden. Lies to herself that has to try and believe to live within the story she’s written for herself.
Nessa’s story incorporates her secrets and lies but it is mainly woven from the truths that she takes for granted or has invested her belief in. Truths about her career, her marriage, her friendships and her motherhood. She comes to understand that many of these truths need to be reassessed.
As I followed Nessa through the events of ‘The Art Of Falling’, I saw her story torn apart as secrets were revealed and truths were reassessed. Yet this wasn’t one of those woman-with-the-perfect-life-risks-losing-it-all-as-dark-secrets-are-revealed psychological thrillers that are so popular just now. Although there were many tense and emotional moments, the emphasis in this story wasn’t on the thrill or even the threat but on Nessa arriving at a new set of truths.
For example, one of the ways that Nessa defines herself is as a leading expert on the work of the recently deceased Irish artist, Robert Locke. When we meet her, Nessa is about to reach an important milestone in her career by managing the procurement and display of Locke’s works and papers including his most famous work, The Chalk Sculpture. This project is put at risk when the ownership of The Chalk Sculpture is disputed by a woman claiming to be both the muse for the piece and its co-creator.
In trying to resolve the dispute, Nessa comes to see that her knowledge of Locke, of which she is so proud, was distorted by her acceptance of the idea that he was a great man and great artist. This story, like Nessa’s about herself, doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. As she learns more about Locke, his approach to art, his relationship with women and the lies he told about himself and others, she sees neither a great man nor a great artist but a parasitic narcissist who she strongly dislikes.
Nessa’s reassessment of Locke mirrors the reassessment she is making, initially involuntarily, of herself. It seemed to me that as Nessa saw the way the women in Locke’s life had accommodated him by shoring up his lies and suppressing their own truths to present an acceptable public story, even after his death, she finally started to re-examine the accommodations she was making to sustain a narrative about her life that she no longer believed in.
By the end of the book, I felt I was watching Nessa falling towards her future after having had the lies and false truths that were holding her in place shorn away and I was reminded of the aspiration given in the moto carved above the door of Nessa’s daughter’s school, which Nessa reflects on in the books opening pages: Esse Quam Videri / To Be Rather Than To Seem.
I recommend the audiobook version of ‘The Art Of Falling’. Tara Flynn’s narration helped bring Nessa alive to me. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample