Reviewed by Meghan O’Neill
Packaged as a novel, Meghan L. Dowling’s debut A Catalogue of Small Pains unwraps into so much more. A quilted collection of lyrical vignettes, pamphlet excerpts, images and captions are sewn together into a multigenerational story of mothers, daughters and sisters, their struggle and trauma hidden from the world in a sometimes all too familiar way.
“They gave us the viscera of these stories. Scrawled up in syllables, the words expanding, keening. A hundred years of filaments popping on the tip of a tongue” (8).
Through her unique structure, Dowling explores the way in which memories move through time like living creatures, shifting and evolving as they are passed down. Perspectives change as we flow back and forth between the main character Catherine’s childhood and that of her grandmother Agnes as well as her mother Carolina before returning to Catherine’s present day.
“The silence between decades is the hiss on a transatlantic line. I can’t touch it. It breathes” (36).
The story is as much about the things that are not said as the things that are. Dowling gives us the insight to understand each woman more than they could possibly understand each other.
The novel begins and ends with “Dear Sister…”, because the story is not only about mothers and daughters, but sisters too.
“Dear Sister, Remembering is the lie of a thread pulled through time backwards. Anchored in birth, the needle returns to pierce the present. It stretches forward into the dark, pointing to the uncertain hour of our deaths. The constellation of bodies fixed, like playing cards or tea leaves: Who were we? Who will we become?“ (9)
Of all the female relationships in this story, each generation of sisters is fraught with things unspoken. How the memories differ, the contrasting ways the women cope with the men in their lives.
“Sister, this is the story I want to tell you…” (234).
The winner of the University of New Orleans Press Publishing Lab, A Catalogue of Small Pains is alluring in the simplicity of its story. In the act of remembering, it’s the small things that stand out, that highlight the differences between women, within family. But it’s also the small things that stand distinct in memory, that bond these women together in experience, within family.
A Catalogue of Small Pains by Meghan L. Dowling
University of New Orleans Press February 2019, 250 pages, $18.95
Meghan O’Neill is an avid reader and able mountain biker but has yet to successfully combine her passions (despite scraped knees and ripped pages). Meghan is currently pursuing a PhD in publishing. Her writing has appeared in Pif Magazine, The Pitkin Review and Pacific Rim Magazine.