“Not a hate about it. The land’ll be here long after we’re dead and gone. Haven’t we only the lend of it?”
Martha told stories. In fact, she was at her best with stories. On those rare nights they saw her pluck things out of the air and break them open before their eyes. […] her pale hands plucking unlikely stories like green plums that ripened with the telling at her hearth.
As Martha tells stories, so does Claire Keegan. Each offering to the reader tales that appear simple, but reveal their complex core through the telling. Her characters, while rich with earthiness, with belonging, are thick with longing for something else.
The Parting Gift is exemplary of this. A beautiful, understated and perfectly formed tale of a girl leaving home to go to America. The not uncommon difficulties surrounding going away are slowly revealed to have more pertinence, as home-life is revealed:
…And then that stopped and you were sent instead, to sleep with your father. […] Then the terrible hand reaching down under the clothes to pull up the nightdress, the fingers strong from milking, finding you.
Terrible is the strongest word used. The tale does not judge or criticise; it does not overdramatize. As with all her stories, Keegan simply pens a picture, which as one gazes upon it, as one might a painting, reveals its details, eventually presenting a scenario of much deeper complexity than the original glimpse contained. Written in the present tense and the second person singular you form, the story is unsettlingly close. But at the same time, the protagonist is distantiated from the reader: a “you”, she is other, elsewhere, as she will soon be, arriving in Kennedy Airport at 12:25. Although unspoken, knowledge of the father’s abuse is hinted at as her brother says he stayed at home to look after her.
I did, but I wasn’t much use was I, Sis?
His sister departing, he too glimpses the possibility: I’m giving up the land. They can keep it. The role of the land, so present in the Irish psyche, representing livelihood, duty and pride, is also a set of inescapable shackles, binding people to their paths forever writ. Thus, Keegan writes off the possibility of change, the embrace between brother and sister at the airport, When his stubble grazes your face recalls the father’s embrace: the mandatory kiss at the end, stubble, and cigarettes on the breath. And so her brother will not leave, he will do as expected and son will become father.
You do not have to deliver the message. You know he will put his boot down, be home before noon, have the meadows knocked long before dark. After that there will be corn to cut. Already the Winter Barley’s turning. September will bring more work, old duties to the land. Sheds to clean out. Cattle to test, lime to spread, dung. You know he will never leave the fields.
Again and again characters are bowed under by their duties to the land or community, to the power of a neighbour’s opinion. And yet, each is also edged with a flicker of yearning, so that they enact their liberty in small unspoken ways. In Walk the Blue Fields, the title story, the wedding the Priest is attending is in fact that of his former secret love, for: If he could not leave the priesthood, she would not see him this way again. Likewise one of Martha’s children was not conceived as assumed by her husband, but by a man who came to the door to sell her roses. How strange and soft the salesman’s hands felt compared to Deegan’s. One of the profoundest expressions of this is in that of a Grandmother, Marcie who is taken to the ocean by her husband for one hour.
Just as he was taking off, she jumped into the road and stopped the car. Then she climbed in and spent the rest of her life with a man who would have gone home without her.
Keegan’s voice is singular. She is often compared to John McGahern, indeed, one of the stories in this collection, Surrender, is after McGahern. There are obvious parallels to be found in two Irish writers who tell of Irish life, but where exactly they lie beyond the setting of rural Ireland is harder to explain. Both writers capture with perceptive insight the workings, the thinking, the dreams and thoughts of Irish communities, but what perhaps relates them more is a mood; a subtle air that tinges the writing, like the angle of a breeze, the tint of the sky. Something I have always admired in McGahern, the echo of which I find in Claire Keegan’s writing, is the capacity for still in a story, for instants of calm; often the gaze is drawn back from the specificity of a situation to look upon the sky, to gaze across a field. Like a breath being drawn: simple, clear.
There is surely something in the Irish voice that is different. The sense of belonging is coupled with one of exile. So, I believe, is the voice. There is a language so deep and undisturbed, an oral tradition almost integral to the people, that it seems to gurgle from the throat much as it might from the land itself. And, there is something else, something that finds its most urgent expression in the writing of Beckett and Joyce, it is a difficulty in sitting comfortably in a language, a refusal of complacency. Perhaps it seems nostalgic to see it thus, but there is something in the attribution of this sensitivity to the fact that the predominant written and spoken language in contemporary Ireland is English, the language of the colonisers.
Thus Claire Keegan writes, in a hefty literary and linguistic tradition, but stark, and sharp, striking out sentences like chords unveiling the both harrowing and life-affirming depths of her characters’ lives.
This review was published in The Short Review.
Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan
Published by Faber 2007.