[ In 1999, Claire Keegan made a highly auspicious debut with her short-story collection, Antarctica. ]
Reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic gushed superlatives - oblique genius, exceptionally gifted, remarkably poetic vision - and literary awards mounted. Since then, no less an authority than Declan Kiberd has declared Keegan to be a writer already touched by greatness whose mastery of the short-story form is comparable to that of John McGahern. Not since Sean OFaolain anointed Neil Jordan as his - and Joyces - heir on the publication of Night in Tunisia in 1976 has a young Irish short-story writer been so rapturously received.
Walk the Blue Fields, Keegans much-anticipated follow-up volume, proves that such critical acclaim was not misplaced. Although much shorter than Antarctica - seven stories as opposed to 15 - the collection extends Keegans shrewd and penetrating observation of the vulnerable and mysterious depths of individual lives. Throughout, the narrow confines of rural lives are used to uncover the outlines of a general human condition characterised by ignorance and yearning. Each story remains resolutely anchored in a web of human relations, concerned with the implications of where one step can lead, be it a fateful choice or a misunderstood gesture. In contrast to many of her contemporaries, Keegan seems little interested in using the short story as a vehicle for socio-cultural critique. Her settings are dense with social detail, yet she refuses to allow public forces to usurp her protagonists private cravings for meaning and authenticity.
Keegans portrayal of painful experience is bracingly unsentimental. The absence of self-pity is exemplified by the opening story, The Parting Gift, which describes a daughters last morning with her family before she emigrates to the US. As in many of Keegans stories, the girl is never named, though she is no less real for that. Indeed, her namelessness underlines her numbness, as does the storys second-person point of view, which evokes the speakers detachment from the events she describes, while simultaneously assuming a degree of intimacy on the readers part. Having made us more malleable, this dispassionate voice reveals itself to be the voice of trauma, without ever breaking register. Such deft management of tone accentuates the girls emotional diminishment, which is further amplified by her listless movement through contracting spaces: from kitchen to car to toilet cubicle.
The Parting Gift suggests that Keegans technique may be partly indebted to Hemingways iceberg aesthetic, where four-fifths of the narrative lurks beneath the surface of the text. Her stories are remarkable not so much for what they leave out as for their muted forms of signification. This is seen to good effect in Close to the Waters Edge, which centres on a young mans visit to his mother and his rich, reactionary stepfather on the Texas coast. The ocean is much more than a passive backdrop to the trios fractious meal in an expensive restaurant. It gradually emerges as the element that symbolises freedom for the troubled protagonist, as it once did for his unfulfilled grandmother. Yet the storys symbolic pattern grows more complex as the narrative unfolds, so that apparently incidental images - a chained parrot, a bound lobster - assume a countervailing emblematic significance.
If Hemingway is an oblique influence in these stories, then McGahern is a central interlocutory presence. Walk the Blue Fields is an intriguing homage to the late Leitrim writer. Throughout the first five stories, there is an alluvial build-up of idiomatic and thematic allusion - even the cover image of a solitary yew tree exudes a McGahernesque pathos - which eventually becomes explicit in the penultimate story, Surrender, subtitled after McGahern. The story was inspired by McGaherns recollection in Memoir of his father telling how, when he knew he was going to be married, he bought two dozen oranges and ate them on a park bench in Galway. Keegans imaginative response to this stray memory is fascinatingly suggestive in the way it adds resonance to it by releasing its deeper meanings, making the story a compelling act of creative elaboration.
Keegans thematic debt to McGahern is most evident in her dramatisation of the illusions and disillusions of love. Like him, she uses epiphanies sparingly to crystallise the pain as well as the possibilities of different kinds of desire. So whereas the sergeant in Surrender comes to realise that Everything was made for something else in whose presence things ran smoothly, the priest in the title story is tortured by the knowledge that two people hardly ever want the same thing at any given point in life. It is sometimes the hardest part of being human.
Other lovelorn protagonists seem robbed of the authority to be themselves. Both Martha in The Foresters Daughter and Margaret in Night of the Quicken Trees feel that something nameless and numinous has evaded them. Indeed, Marthas sense that so much of her life has revolved around things that never happened recalls McGaherns plangent evocation in Doorways of how the small events we look forward to become minute replicas of the expectation that we call the rest of our life. Marthas husband harbours his own silent pain; for him, Dreaming has become the closest thing to having someone to talk to. If such lines confirm that life is mostly a sorrowful mystery in Walk the Blue Fields, they also bear out McGaherns claim that the quality of the seeing is more important than the quality of the message. If the writing truly sees, then it is liberating.