Sarah Bakewell, ‘A feeling for feeling’, review of Touchy Subjects, by Emma Donoghue,
in Times Literary Supplement (24 Nov. 2006), p.20.

These stories’ subjects are touchy in two ways. They deal with matters of “taboo and embarrassment”, as the author’s website puts it. Emma Donoghue’s characters leave sperm stains on hotel carpets, or become obsessed with a girlfriend’s chin hair but dare not mention it, or fret about what to do when they find a man lying unconscious in the street.

But these are also touchy tales in that many of them concern touch, or, sometimes, the absence of it. The title story is a hilarious farce involving conception without sexual contact. A man agrees to impregnate his wife’s best friend in a hotel room; he takes with him an empty baby-food jar for the purpose, but finds the procedure less straightforward than he expected. The attempt turns into a fiasco on several levels, until his wife saves the day with a bout of telephone sex. In another story, “The Welcome”, love blossoms between the narrator and a character who avoids touching her, for reasons which become guessable as events uiAld. Yet it is an attraction based on physical solidity and warmth.

Above all, touch is the motif of “Sanctuary of Hands”, the most impressive story in the book. Fleeing a relationship break-up, a woman travels to southern France and there visits a caverne troglodytique, a cave once occupied by prehistoric humans. On the guided tour, she is disconcerted to notice that her companions are a “special needs” group, a gaggle of vulnerable-looking, bewildered, strangely small people who stand too close to her and don’t “seem to know about embarrassment”. As they pick their way down a steep path in the cave, one man takes fright. The guide suggests that the “mademoiselle” - the narrator realizes with horror that this means her - might hold his hand. She does so. The man, Jean-Luc, seems reassured, but she is not.

As they go on, hand in hand, she feels ill at ease, uncertain what is expected of her or how to communicate with this unsettling being. The group stops in a painted cave. Here, the guide switches off her torch to show how dark it would have been for the original cave dwellers if their fires went out. Jean-Luc’s hand is now the only point of warmth and reality in a chilly void. The narrator imagines the early humans clinging together for comfort in the same way, all sleeping in a heap, always alert to danger. Touch suddenly seems not a threat but a lifeline.

They emerge into the sun and air at last, a great relief - but Jean-Luc continues to hold the narrator’s hand. Her anxiety returns. Does he think he can take her home on the coach? How will she extricate herself. But at the edge of the car park he simply lets go, and wishes her a polite “Au revoir”. “Sanctuary of Hands” is a story about fear, about the boundaries of the fully human, and about making contact in the cold and dark. It suggests more than it makes explicit, and dwells troglodytically in the mind long after it is finished.

This makes it stand out in Touchy Subjects, a collection whose main virtue is not depth or resonance so much as surface versatility. Donoghue speaks in many voices. She sets her stories in different locations, from Florence to Louisiana, and shows expertise in many genres - mood pieces, comedies, moral fables, romantic erotica. One has the impression of a professional who can make literary capital from any experience, from a trip to Los Angeles to a cat’s illness, to the teaching of a writing class. In isolation, each story would shine on its own merits; in a collection, all this virtuosity can be fatiguing.

Still, there are great pleasures in Touchy Subjects, including the humour in the title story, the sensuousness of the seduction tale “Speaking in Tongues”, and the sense of sheer exasperation that comes across in “WritOe’, a comedy based on the tribulations of a creativewriting teacher. Like “Sanctuary of Hands”, “WritOr” [sic] combines a certain squeamishness about people with an underlying compassion for those who are easily hurt. Both stories are in yet another sense of the term - extremely touching.

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