Monday, February 21, 2011
Book Review - Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan
One of the best new writers to come along in decades is the Irish writer, Claire Keegan, who hails from County Wicklow. Although Keegan, herself cites the American writer, Flannery O’Conner as one of her personal favorites and one of her influences, Keegan’s work bears more resemblance to Chekhov, and to her fellow Irishmen, John McGahern and William Trevor. Dedicated to the short story form, Keegan’s story, “Foster” was chosen the “Best of the Year” by the “New Yorker” and is now available from online booksellers in an extended form. Keegan burst onto the literary scene with the volume of short stories titled, Antarctica, which won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, and she followed that with another called Walk the Blue Fields. I think anyone who loves either Chekhov or William Trevor is going to love Walk the Blue Fields because, as already stated, the three authors – Chekhov, Trevor, and Keegan – do share much in common.
Like Trevor, Keegan, at least in this volume, writes of characters who are haunted by the past, a past that’s followed them into their present and will no doubt continue to follow them into their future. The stories revolve around people who will be familiar to readers of Irish fiction: strong, independent, quirky women; controlling, domineering men; priests, those shamed and those not; people who are not happy, but who struggle to do their best and are resigned to their fate.
I think Keegan differs from Trevor in that many of her stories spring from Irish folktales or myth. Trevor is definitely based in reality. In Walk the Blue Fields, the best example of a story that springs from myth would be the story titled “Night of the Quicken Trees,” which is also one of the best stories in the volume. The story revolves around an eccentric and damaged woman, who moves into a dead priest’s house, burns all his furniture, urinates on the grass, and subsequently embarks on a strange adventure with the strange bachelor who lives next door, a bachelor who sleeps with his pet goat. The story is quintessentially Irish, containing darkness, quirky humor, resignation, and mystery.
Another outstanding story is “The Forester’s Daughter,” a story of a woman who marries Deegan, a selfish, emotionally bereft man she does not love, a man who has “little time to dwell on things,” in the hope that she will come to love him. Love, however, rarely works that way, and Martha, “the forester’s daughter” comes to realize the weight of her mistake one day when her husband castigates her for wasting “my money on roses.” Martha, however, has her revenge, and we feel it coming, we realize its inevitability, yet we're still a little surprised when it happens.
“Dark Horses” revolves around the character of Brady, a man who has but one thing on his mind: he wants his lady back. Although this story is filled with finely wrought descriptions of Irish life and Brady is a well rounded, fully fleshed out character, the story itself never quite lives up to the ominous promises it makes. I wish it had.
My favorite story was the title story, "Walk the Blue Fields," which center on a priest who marries the woman he once loved to another man. Unable to remain at the wedding dinner, the priest walks across the fields and finds redemption and healing in the most unlikely of places. "Walk the Blue Fields" is a quiet, unassuming story that is beautifully told.
Like Anton Chekhov, and like William Trevor before her, Claire Keegan has an innate ability to capture the pathos of an entire nation and nationality in a few pages of a short story. However, Trevor, who has been called the “Irish Chekhov,” and Keegan both differ from Chekhov in some very important ways. None of their characters possess the melodrama and puffed up self-importance so often seen in Chekhov’s. Trevor’s and Keegan’s characters are so resigned to their misery that they would never think of seeking answers to their dilemmas the way Chekhov’s characters so often do. In this, they resemble more the characters of Thomas Hardy. I do think Keegan’s pacing is reminiscent of Chekhov. There’s nothing hurried in her stories; everything happens in its own time, at just the right moment, and not a moment too soon.
Also like Chekhov – and like Trevor – Keegan keeps her narrators at arm’s distance from the reader. This would be a fault in some novels and short stories, but with Keegan’s material, it works wonderfully. In fact, it lends an air of authenticity to the stories. In many ways, it allows Ireland, itself to be the star. You get the feeling that while these stories embrace universal themes, they couldn’t have taken place any where else in the world but in Ireland.
The stories in Walk the Blue Fields are bleak, but they are gentler and more delicate than those in Keegan’s previous collection, Antarctica, and even though Keegan cites Flannery O’Conner as one of the writers who influenced her own writing, these stories are definitely gentler than anything “O’Conner ever wrote. Walk the Blue Fields has a narrower range than Antarctica does, and all to the good, I think. Each story takes place in a single house, a single car, a few fields, etc., yet I didn’t get any sense of claustrophobia in these stories, so universal are the themes.
Like O’Conner, though, Keegan writes of rural worlds and rural people. The men are generally silent, the women wild and untamed. Bad marriages abound, as do errant children. And all of Keegan’s characters seem to have, in one way or another, a deep attachment to the land.
Keegan’s themes – infidelity, regret, grace, loss – have a timeless quality about them. The events she writes about could have taken place fifty, even one hundred or two hundred years ago. And where O’Conner’s characters were drawn in bold, vivid colors, Keegan’s are, like the tragedy that befalls their lives, delicately nuanced, something I thought suited her subject matter perfectly.
Keegan’s prose is both spare and elegant. You won’t find any fancy tricks here or verbal pyrotechnics. Every word seems to have been carefully and meticulously chosen, each one building on the one before to give us a truly visceral snapshot of rural Ireland. The spareness of Keegan’s prose mirrors the spare lives her characters lead. With few exceptions, these are people who ask for no more than “just enough.”
The stories contained in Walk the Blue Fields are beautiful stories. They are achingly painful and achingly beautiful, and they resonate with life. They reach into the reader’s soul and pull his or her emotions out with them. And before you think these stories might be too bleak, Keegan does offer a slight possibility of hope in each of them. A flight ticket; a chance encounter with a Chinaman; a walk across the fields; a strange fisherman’s boat. All of these and more are symbols of a new beginning for Keegan’s protagonists. Will that new beginning be better than the past they’ve left behind? Well, that another story, isn’t it? Maybe Keegan will write it some day.
Recommended: Absolutely, without reservation to anyone who loves short stories, especially the stories of Anton Chekhov and William Trevor.