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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

How Big is Small? Claire Keegan

An adaptation of Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These will open the Berlin Film Festival on February 15. Another of her stories, Foster,  was made into an Irish language film of 2023 (see All Irish to Us, January 14, 2023). The movies should alert readers to the short stories Keegan has been publishing since Antarctica,  her collection of 1999. The Parting Gift, is an excellent entry to her work. It’s a story of ten pages in her second collection, Walk the Blue Fields of 2007.

The Parting Gift hints at what’s to be the world of Keegan’s writing. A girl not out of her teens has grown up on a farm in rural Ireland. She’s the last child of a  large family that  her mother did not want. The brightest  of all in school, she’s leaving home. She has sold her pony to buy a ticket to New York. Her father is a household despot with a sadistic streak. The girl makes light of the sexual abuse she has suffered from him. She passes it off as if it’s a blemish on her face  that she has to live with. Her mother hasn’t stood in her husband’s way but dreads losing the companionship of the girl. Her brother has tried to protect her. He works the farm but assures her he too will leave it. She knows he will never manage to break loose. The story breathes the joy of the girl’s escape. However, Claire Keegan herself in her mid-fifties still lives in rural Ireland. Her writing has been a challenge to its values and deep affection for its landscape.

Photo by Nick Kane on Unsplash

In The Parting Gift, four figures of Claire Keegan’s personal drama have begun to take shape. First, the father, a brutal male who can only envisage a woman in functions that serve him. Second, the brother, sensitive and well meaning but constrained  by respect for the social norms around him. Third, the mother, twisted by those same norms into being complicit in her own mistreatment. Fourth, the young woman herself who breaks free of her society’s norms but carries its bruises.

The next step for this foursome is seen in the title story of Antarctica. It begins: A “happily married woman” went away alone to seek Christmas presents for her husband and small children. The set-free female figure of the country girl has become a self-assured woman. She “wondered how it would feel to sleep with another man” before she grew too old. She didn’t object when the likeable man she met in a bar told her, “I know your type….You’re wild. You’re one of those wild middle-class women.”

They drank, promenaded like young and careless fun-lovers. In his apartment he treated her like a queen, cooked a serious meal and then satisfied her curiosity about adultery. She left him asleep in the morning, checked out of her hotel and prepared to take the train home. It was over. She knew how it felt now. But the man sought her out and with a heavy hand took her back to his apartment. He remained congenial but his care now included handcuffs and binding her to the bed. He was the  return of the girl’s overbearing father.

The hard pressed mother figure takes more solid form in Antarctica’s story, Men and Women. She has to swallow the humiliation her husband piles on her and is forbidden his bedroom. The the shadowy brother, the ineffectual male, reappears in the same collection’s A Scent of Winter . He’s a spineless husband who leaves his lover in the lurch.

However,  though the 1999 and 2007 collections of stories promised much, Keegan still had much to learn. She tended to end a story with a  violent surprise that seems facile as if she couldn’t find an organic solution. Her descriptions of nature, as fine as they are, often got in the way of the narrative. She could push too hard to score a point for a cause however admirable. Often she simply roamed in memories of growing up. Her America set stories felt inauthentic.

With The Long and Painful Death in her second collection, Keegan finds the magic mix. The central character is an independent woman who confronts days of  solitude  with serenity and pleasure. She affirms the point Keegan has been working to establish. The right to make whimsical choices, to follow one’s temperament—to do as one pleases—belongs to women too. The male intruder who feels otherwise suffers a crisis that’s almost physical and retreats like a beaten dog. The woman is a writer and manages to join her thoughts seamlessly with Anton Chekov in one of his masterful tales.

Keegan here is on the way to Foster and not saying too much but putting the lone word in the right place. It will lead directly to her last publication, the 2023, So Late in the Day. The girl-woman is now a cosmopolitan in Dublin. As so often, Keegan’s speaks with a male character’s voice. He, like her other Irishmen, is in a cloud of unknowing. A worker in the cultural industry, he should know better. Ready to settle into the family role, he does some cautious courting, But when his betrothed moves her belongings into his home—his fortress—he’s unnerved by the intrusion. Worse, he finds his prospective partner lives according to rules of her own, not the functional wifely ones he anticipated. Generous, he is not, money-wise and in every other way. At the last minute, the woman decides against the marriage.  Stunned, he simply can’t fathom her. He can only search for the right obscenity to fit her and  goes on with his life in his secure territory with his pet cat that he feels he understands.

Small Things Like These of 2021 was more than a novella of 110 pages. The high praise of the Irish literary establishment was mixed with a great sigh of relief. Praising Keegan was nothing new. Her giving new life to the short story form set by Chekov had been clear since her first collection. But now she put the seal of art on revelations that rocked Ireland. Small Things dealt with the Magdalen Laundries, the convents that from the 1820s until 1998 incarcerated tens of thousands of unwed mothers, babies, and small children in penitentiary conditions. Shining light on the inhumanity that marked this long collaboration of Church and State came as a brutal shock to a modern Ireland self-confident in its position in the European Union. The scandal of “homes for fallen young women” hurried the priest-ridden country on the road to becoming post-Catholic. In fact, while 79% of the population identified as Catholic in 2016, only 69% did so in 2023.

Keegan takes on the huge event in her characteristic  small, oblique and telling way. She situates Small Things in 1985. The story is in the hands of an ordinary small-town Irishman, unusual amongst Keegan’s males in his sudden awareness of what has been going on around him since childhood. His own fatherless life and brood of daughters has sharpened his sensitivity. He awakes to the evil  being inflicted in the convent that loomed beside him all his life. The nuns, untouchable in their goes-without-saying goodness, ran an industry that was destroying lives. Keegan’s picture of how the community has kowtowed to the muscular virtue of the brides of Christ is breathtaking.

The film directed by Tim Mielants will star Cillian Murphy fresh from his success in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. The ten-day Berlinale’s 74th edition will mark the beginning of Zeitgeist Ireland 24, a year long German celebration of Irish culture.

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