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By Claire Keegan

This auspicious debut collection of short stories comes highly recommended, since some of the pieces here have already garnered garlands like the Martin Healy Prize, the Francis MacManus Award and the William Trevor Prize, and been published and broadcast extensively. It is not difficult to see why, as Keegan does several things very well.

Her own background consists of an upbringing in rural Co Wexford, a degree in English and Political Science from Loyola University in New Orleans, and a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Wales in Cardiff. All this experience is drawn upon, not only in terms of location - seven of the stories are set in Ireland, six in America, and two across the water - but also in appropriate and exact use of relevant idiom.

Several of the stories - ‘Where the Water’s Deepest’, ‘The Ginger Rogers Sermon’, ‘Storms’, ‘The Singing Cashier’, ‘Burns’, ‘Men and Women’, ‘A Scent of Winter’ and ‘The Burning Palms’ - deal with childhood or early adolescence, whether first or third person narratives, and delineate a child’s or adolescent’s increasing perception of an often senselessly cruel and hostile adult world he or she is struggling to understand. Keegan specialises in the recounting of bizarre experiences and extreme situations in an understated, deadpan manner, but this domestication of perspective never becomes either too genteelly sanitised or too gratuitously shocking, since all effects are achieved by steady yet subtle implication.

The title story concerns a happily married woman’s just-for-the-sake-of-it, just-to-see-what-it’s-like infidelity, a playful but self-indulgent caprice for which she gets rather more than she bargained. ‘Storms’ charts the effects of a mother’s descent into madness on her daughter. ‘The Singing Cashier’ deftly incorporates the Fred West story into a piece about a young woman who trades sex for food: ‘I drank Fred West’s milk while my sister was fucking the postman’ is one of the few more up front, in-your-face declarations in the book. ‘Burns’ deals with a man and his children and his second wife (the kids’ step mom) in their attempt to exorcise the ghost of his first wife, the natural but abusive mother of the children. In ‘A Scent of Winter’ a Southern man has taken the law into his own hands with his now anorexic wife’s black rapist, and seeks legal advice about how best to avoid detection. In ‘You Can’t Be Too Careful’ a murderer frames the narrator. ‘Passport Soup’ is a short but searing tale, reminiscent in theme of Ian McEwan’s 1987 novel The Child in Time, and in terseness of tone - if not plainness of language - to the more successful stories of Raymond Carver, in which a wife mentally tortures her husband for losing their daughter. Although it may be an over-obvious reference point, it is still high praise to mention that there is more than a touch of the Flannery O’Connoresque Southern Gothic about the stories set in the States.

Nascent feminism in rural Ireland is another recurring thread, and in ‘Storms’, ‘Quare Name for a Boy’, ‘Men and Women’ and ‘Sisters’ we meet women and girls living in isolation in the Irish countryside, giving over their lives to caring for mostly ungrateful men. However, rather than becoming bleakly resigned to their situation, sooner or later Keegan’s characters make a gesture of defiance, and take some form of affirmative action. She also writes with almost equal fluency in both male and female voices and from those points of view, and it is no accident that ‘Men and Women’ is arguably the most perfectly realised story in the collection, although I would be very surprised if the familial sexual politics it contains were that of contemporary Ireland.

This book is a grower, and its pleasures and virtues sneak up on you slowly. Like good poetry, one’s appreciation increases with repeated readings. Despite, or more probably because of, the detachment, coolness and iciness, there’s fire down below. Finally, this woman is great at leave-it-hanging endings.

Keegan has just completed an M Phil in Creative Writing at Trinity College, and is currently embarked on a novel. Not only does this volume give just cause to revise upward one’s opinion of such courses, but its wonderfully accurate descriptive passages and scene-setting, and its attention to the nuances of language, place and character, auger very well for what is yet to come.

First published in Books Ireland


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