Claire Keegan
Grove/Atlantic ($13)

by Salvatore Ruggiero

A pervasive melancholy rips through the hearts and minds of the characters in Claire Keegan’s Walk the Blue Fields. In sharp, sparing prose, the Irish author’s new collection of stories analyzes the faults and flaws of fathers and daughters, writers and brides, farmers and pastors—all of whom are stuck in their own worlds of loneliness. With a cold but knowledgeable eye, Keegan explores an Ireland yearning for impossible desires and the sacrifices we all make to get what we think we want.

To solidify this sense of solitude, Keegan chooses to make most of her characters anonymous—she uses their professions as their identities, gives no personality or physical descriptions, and thus creates an allegorical and existential aura to these stories. The farmer, the daughter, or a character’s surname seems to suffice here. However, in “The Parting Gift,” the narration is second person, present tense: “When sunlight reaches the foot of the dressing table, you get up and look through the suitcase again,” the story starts. This perspective jars the reader’s perspective; we must recognize that the “you” of this story is not a mirrored version of ourselves but rather a girl flying to New York, leaving her family behind—a family that includes a father who sexually molested her and a brother who proudly states he’s going to leave the family farm and find a new life, but can’t admit that none of that will ever happen. The choice to narrate from this perspective creates a disorientation that permits the reader and the protagonist to sit side by side and understand one another more concretely.

In the eponymous story of this collection, we receive a portrait of a wedding day that’s not ruined by the fact that the best man, while drunk and dancing with the bride, breaks her pearl necklace. Rather, it is the memories of the love affair the priest who officiated the wedding once had with said bride. Instead of being allowed to let go of inhibitions like everyone else at the ceremony—one woman steals a serviette as the priest watches, admitting to her kleptomaniac obsession over these items; the best man admires his penis size while zipping up in the men’s room—the priest is stuck saying grace over dinner and dessert, a prayer which he says without enthusiasm, without care:

Lately, when he has prayed, his prayers have not been answered. Where is God? he has asked. Not, what is God? He does not mind not knowing God. His faith has not faltered—that’s what’s strange—but he wishes God would show himself. All he wants is a sign. Some nights he gets down on his knees when the housekeeper is gone and the curtains are pulled tight across the windows and prays to God to show him how to be a priest.

The narrator is relentless here, making the priest merely a priest; there are no other signifiers to this man. And yet he doesn’t know how to be the man he’s supposed to be, convey the character those around him think he should. Moments like these—where the narrators uncover some character flaw, a tender moment, or a raw description—truly make this collection heartbreaking. Characters cannot admit to one another, or even to themselves, the truth about their behavior or innate desires. Their painful existences are then augmented by this reticence and inability to express yearnings and feelings, a theme that Keegan also explored in her first collection Antarctica (Grove Press, 2002) and its standout story “Close to the Water’s Edge.”

Keegan’s style of telling a story is almost suffocating: each sentence, in its simplicity, leaves us gasping for something more and intrigues by disgust, pity, or plain curiosity. Our own epiphanies about these characters are uncovered when there’s an empty moment to ruminate upon the solitude—mental and physical—these men and women are experiencing. No flowery language or purple prose buffers the pain and problems; the psychological horrors of these characters are not only held by themselves but by the readers as well. Likewise there are no showy plot devices or experimental trials; everything seems natural and necessary. In that, Walk the Blue Fields is a silent, grounded, and gritty collection.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009