03 July 2007

A review of Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan

Claire Keegan’s first collection of short stories, Antarctica, heralded her as a literary talent to watch. It won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and Keegan has been compared to Raymond Carver and William Trevor. Her second collection of short stories, Walk the Blue Fields, has been eagerly anticipated.

Keegan was raised in county Wicklow and all bar one of the seven tales are set in rural Ireland. But these stories do not speak of a pastoral idyll. The Ireland evoked here is dark and unsettled, the characters dislocated and alone, despite the proximity of others.

All the protagonists in these stories are well formed, despite the brevity of the narratives. She provides glimpses into significant moments in their lives rather than complete explorations and the short story form is perfectly suited to this. Keegan is dedicated to the form, it’s all she really wants to write, and this shines through her work. So though the reader is treated to a mere snapshot of characters’ lives, the impression left is deep and resonant. There is a haunting melancholy to Walk the Blue Fields.

In ‘The Parting Gift’ a young woman articulates her reason for leaving Ireland, and her familial home, for New York. It is a moving and disturbing piece made all the more so by Keegan’s use of the second person point of view. Lonely Martha is unhappily married to the forester, her only joy, her daughter, the result of a brief liaison with a passing rose bush salesman. Tension builds slowly and imperceptibly until everything comes tumbling down.

In the title story, an achingly beautiful piece, a priest marries a young couple and throughout the celebrations he is haunted by the memories of a love affair and the choice he made. When everything begins to close in on him, he leaves the party, and walks and walks. He stumbles upon another alienated character in the region, a Chinese healer and masseur, and his cathartic touch releases the priest from pain. “Why is tenderness so much more disabling than injury?”

The characters do a lot of walking in these tales – across the green fields, along beaches and in all sorts of weather - and it is an indicator of Keegan’s connection to the land, her truthfulness and her deep understanding of human nature. For in times of pain, anger and confusion how many of us have experienced the restorative power of walking?

Keegan is a true wordsmith and her lean, elegant prose has no need of fancy tricks. These tales are dripping in atmosphere and their austere, visceral touch stayed with me for a long time. Bleak though the stories may be the collection is not without humour. A talking dog, strange customs and odd human behaviour add a light comic touch.

‘Night of the Quicken Trees’ borrows from Irish folklore and is a personal favourite of mine. A damaged, barren woman moves into the dead priest’s house, burns all the furniture, makes a habit of urinating outside and embarks upon a strange relationship with the middle-aged bachelor living next door. A delightful, quirky story of love lost and found, magic and mystery. Quintessentially Irish, finely nuanced and unforgettable.

The priest in Walk the Blue Fields reflects on “How strange it is to be alive.” This superb collection captures this observation beautifully.

Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan, published in paperback by Faber and Faber, £10.99

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