Mothers, daughters, and sisters must both protect and betray. They must maintain appearances in order to hide their pain. Winner of the University of New Orleans Press Publishing Lab, A Catalogue of Small Pains tells the stories of three generations of women whose lives are overshadowed by the secret cruelty of the family patriarch. Layering vignettes, illustrations, and instructions on womanhood in America, this fragmented novel exhibits the memories of a family, its heartbreak and pain, and stands as a delicate testament to a world where the past comes once again into focus.
Praise for the novel…
“Remembering is the lie of a thread pulled through time backwards,” yet Meghan L. Dowling’s protagonist, Catherine, is determined to reveal the multigenerational legacy of enmity between sisters in her New England family. Over the span of a century, these women have clubbed together and clubbed each other’s hearts with a brutality particular to siblings. A novel that reads like a prose poem, A Catalogue of Small Pains traces their story with such convincing humanity that its fictions could be mistaken for documentary truth.
In a novel that could easily venerate nostalgia, Catherine is suspicious of all memories. Memory’s skips, jumps, and reconstructions are captured through equal parts intervention and omission. Beginning with her own relationship to her older sister, she dismantles each generation’s stories, skipping through time, various perspectives, photographs, and other evidence to overturn accepted family mythologies and long-held silences alike.
Dowling constructs a historicity for these characters using narratives, photos, and excerpts of various outside documents, from religious tracts to educational pamphlets to movies. A photograph’s caption notes, “What is left unseen is left to the imagination,” and there’s a constant tension between the implications of a documented, “actual” past and the novel’s revelation of an imagined past’s emotional textures and weight.
As layers of family dysfunction are peeled back, it becomes clear these women exist in a sphere of hovering,unacknowledged, gendered violence, the looming shape of which alters them. Their “catalogue of small pains” has been sublimated and normalized because of their sex.
Beginning with its very title, Dowling’s novel undersells and, thus, perfectly captures the odious, everyday nature of itswomen’s trials and their attending violations. A Catalogue of Small Pains is a small, common story, and that’s the trouble of it all.
Letitia Montgomery-Rodgers , Foreword Reviews
“In A Catalogue of Small Pains, each woman’s body is an heirloom, cracked by its daily use. Meghan L. Dowling compresses family saga, all those sprawling chapters of chatter and incident, into hard, small things—a brass ashtray, a steel comb, a silver-plated brush—homely objects that leave marks on the skin. This is a book of sisters, mothers, daughters, and wives, a book of half secrets and deceptive modesties, of inherited dangers. The sentences don’t seem written but rather inlaid, like gemstones in enamel. The effect is brilliant and cutting.”
—Joanna Ruocco, author of Dan
“A Catalogue of Small Pains is an emotional collage shaped un-linearly, examined by creative pamphlets of realities, governed by unexpected poetic forces, and marked by quotidian exactness of intercourse, birthing, and feminine being. ‘Knives do not make this sound in real life’ nor in Meghan L. Dowling’s A Catalogue of Small Pains. There are sangfroidic words where photos are supposed to be. There are matriarchal whispers of anger in place of sexual infractions. Here lies female fragments of aching sweetness made candid by the different footsteps of time. There are soup in an envelope meant to be sent to China with a stamp. Even the fear of sleeping pills and the choirboy and the nipple of a fire hydrant traumatize the unified consciousness of Agnes, Emilie, Carolina, Mary, Ma. With these female beings huddled together like orange marmalade in an icebox, they don’t emerge merely as morsels or splinters in the back pocket of memory. There are enormous depth of isolated rage that could not be spoken for such as ‘My limbs, smothered. The weight of him I couldn’t move.’ Even the past works ‘his way in through the friction of dry flesh’ of this book. There lies a catalogue of small pains in A Catalogue of Small Pains. Break this cabinet open, lick this page, and defenestrate into this Dowling inkwell. You won’t obliterate.”
—Vi Khi Nao, author of A Brief Alphabet of Torture