How do you make conversation with a sperm donor? How do you say someone's novel is drivel? Would you give a screaming baby brandy? In what words would you tell your girlfriend to pluck a hair on her chin?
Touchy Subjects is about things that make people wince: taboos, controversies, secrets and lies. Some of the events that characters crash into are grand, tragic ones: miscarriage, overdose, missing persons, a mother who deserts her children. Other topics, like religion and money, are not inherently taboo, but they can cause acute discomfort because people disagree so vehemently. Many of these stories are about the spectrum of constrained, convoluted feeling that runs from awkwardness through embarrassment to shame.
In contrast to previous books focused on feminist retellings of fairy tales (Kissing the Witch) and revisionist imaginings of historical and folkloric female figures (The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits), Irish writer Donoghue's latest, a set of 19 witty tales, remains firmly planted in Ireland's present. Divided into five sections "Babies," "Domesticity," "Strangers," "Desire," "Death" the book has one unifying theme: the characters' constant need for revision of assumptions, perceptions and expectations in light of new information. In "Expecting," a woman re-evaluates her maternal instincts when a stranger misinterprets her condition. Elsewhere, a heartbroken young woman uses a trip abroad to indulge her fantasies of being Catherine Deneuve or Isadora Duncan, but discovers true healing in a more unlikely incarnation. In "The Sanctuary of Hands," a bitter, washed-up writer finds true genius during his yearlong residency, but not in the way he expected. Throughout, Donoghue offers deadpan asides about the trappings of the recent boom times in Ireland.