Saturday, August 23, 2008

A charcoal sketch of despair

A tiny collection of seven short stories, Claire Keegan's Walk the Blue Fields may be among the best books you will read this year. Set in rural Ireland, where time stands still and passions run deep, these stories remind us of the universality of despair and deprivation.

In the first story, The Parting Gift, a young woman is being sent to the United States to escape a lifetime of abuse from her father. As her mother and brother prepare to send her off at the airport, Keegan builds on the silences and the dispersal of precious, meaningless advice ("Watch out for pickpockets in New York") to draft a story of considerable emotional heft.

In the quirky The Long and Painful Death, a female author checks into a residence (formerly the house of writer Heinrich Boll) to overcome a disabling writer's block, only to be disturbed by a persistent stranger who seems intent on visiting her. The meeting, when it happens, fizzles out after little more than the exchange of pleasantries, yet it comes to provide the template of a new, dark tale that the writer pens, about a lonesome man dying of a terminal illness.

Rural Ireland, viewed through Keegan's eyes, is a place brimming with marital discord and unhappy alliances. In The Forester's Daughter, a woman gets revenge for having married the wrong person by narrating the shared sadness of their lives to the entire village, many years after the wedding, on her husband's birthday. Martha's dissatisfaction with Victor, while always tending toward something tangible, is delayed until secrets begin to unravel on one shocking evening.

Keegan is partial to women in her tales. In Night of the Quicken Trees, a woman gifted with the power to heal walks away from the promise of happiness, unreasonably. Even as Keegan tries to tie this up with the weight of an oppressive past, Margaret does not quite come across as the heroic figure the author would have us believe she is.

Yet Keegan's writing offers stark, intelligent flourishes and a look into the heart of rural Ireland, gurgling with desolate undercurrents.

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This review appeared in St Petersburg Times.

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