Daddy by Emma Cline

Daddy is a series of ten short stories that delve right into the heart of character. The stories work well collected together, as each seems to address some darker menace hovering below the normal-looking surface of people’s lives. Each main character has such a specific outlook that behaviours others may recoil from are presented as almost inevitable, sometimes regrettable, but still somehow impossible to avoid.

A father erases his past violent behaviour through the filter of memory and the insistence upon his own change (‘What Can You Do with a General’). Another father, in ‘Northeast Regional’, goes to his son’s school to sort out what will happen after his son assaulted another pupil, all while he’s trying to text a married woman he’s having an affair with. He knows his son only vaguely and is cross when his son’s girlfriend doesn’t eat the food she ordered for lunch. The girlfriend drops her fork and the waitress comes to pick it up and give her another. In a line that seems to sum up the strange mutable sense of individual morality the collection explores, Cline writes:

‘When she retreated, leaving Richard alone with his son and the crying girl, it occurred to him, with the delayed logic of a dream, that the waitress must have thought he was the bad guy in all this.’

Not all of the protagonists are men, but the weight of the patriarchy is heavy upon the collection. In a later story, ‘Mack the Knife’, the main character, having left his wife, is now living with his much younger girlfriend. He is aware that ‘They had gotten everything they wanted’ but this doesn’t stop them being depressed, needing something external, something extra to give their lives validity and meaning. This might be drugs – his young girlfriend has ketamine – but it might also be a friendship with someone whose life is obviously worse than theirs. His friend with a son dying of cancer for example.

The female characters all seem to have an uneasy relationship with the power of their sexuality. Alice in ‘Los Angeles’ ends up selling her underwear to men, trying hard not to think about the vulnerable situations this behaviour might put her in. 

Kayla in ‘The Nanny’ sleeps with the famous actor whose son she’s been hired to look after and feels as if this kind of thing were bound to happen to her, that she doesn’t have the brains for anything else and that growing old will make her bitter. 

Thora from ‘a/a/1’ is a sex addict, obsessed with online chat rooms and in ‘Marion’ the young teenage protagonist is confused by the behaviour of her friend Marion who is so desperate to get a man’s attention she’s prepared to take naked photographs and get her friend to knock out her tooth.

Affairs, disloyalty, violence both sexual and non, simmer behind this collection. It’s a scary world that we’re presented with, one we don’t want to imagine is real, and yet, we all know is. Daddy is a political collection. It asks us to take a long hard look at ourselves and admit the malleable morality of the privileged. I thoroughly enjoyed the depth and intensity of these character-rich stories. Out earlier this month, you can also take a look at my review of her previously published novel, The Girls.

As some of you may remember, I was going to write about This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga in this next blog, but I realised I’d missed a novel between her first (and one of my favourites), Nervous Conditions. I’m going to read The Book of Not before posting my review of This Mournable Body. I’m also going to be reviewing Normal People by Sally Rooney. However, it will mostly be a review of how books are adapted because I must confess to having read the novel after seeing the adaptation and as we all know, there is something about having ‘seen’ characters acted out that makes it hard to form different images of the characters when reading the book.

Feel free to comment, make readings suggestions, below.