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Give a Thing and Take it Back

Éilís ní Dhuibhne

Walk the Blue Fields, by Claire Keegan, Faber & Faber, 163 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 978-0571233069

The story which has attracted most critical attention in this, Claire Keegan’s second collection, is one which she writes in explicit homage to John McGahern: “Surrender”. Inspired by an event recounted in his final work, Memoir, it focuses on an episode in which McGahern’s father, cornered – as he viewed it – into marrying his fiancée of some years, bought two dozen oranges and gobbled them up all at once. This was his last symbolic and literal act of self-indulgence before he surrendered to what he, like many of the men in Claire Keegan’s stories, regarded as the burdensome responsibility of marriage. (McGahern’s memoir, and his fiction, reveal, of course, that this was in fact far from being his last gluttonous act; as a father his solipsism led him to much more dangerous indulgences.)

The modern realistic short story form, as developed by its exponents since Chekhov – including Joyce, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, William Trevor, Edna O’Brien and John McGahern, to name a handful of those who may have influenced Claire Keegan in her development as a master of the art – is one of the most demanding of all for writers (and, incidentally, for readers). Many balls must be held in the air, and the author has to keep her eye on all of them. The short story should have a strong narrative drive. It should provide an insight into the human condition which is both original and authentic. Its characters should be striking, and drawn with swift sharp strokes. In addition, the short story is a poem. It is fluid and rhythmical. And it influences by its imagery and symbolism as much as by its ideas and narrative. A story recounted in words, it aspires to the condition of artefact, of painting or sculpture. It has to work, simultaneously, on the intellect, the heart and the senses. It must engage the reader with drama, but at the same time affect him or her in ways of which s/he may be entirely unconscious, just as a painting affects the viewer by its judicious use of colour and shapes and symbols, or a piece of music by its choice of notes and their arrangement.

We remember the red convertible, shining on the drive way, from Raymond Carver’s classic short story “Are Those Actual Miles?”, or the white cream meringues in Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party”. We remember the garden. And the swarm of bees in Anne Enright’s “Honey”. These central images remain with us, after we have forgotten the details of the plots which cluster around them.

Vivid images are essential elements in the short story writer’s box of tricks. Claire Keegan, who has, among many gifts, an unerring eye for the illuminating, colourful symbol, takes from McGahern’s memoir one of its most striking: the box of oranges. Around this picture she constructs her story.

In reaching out, he hesitated, but the fruit he chose felt heavy. The rind did not come away easily and his thumbnail left an oily track over the flesh. When he tasted it, it tasted sweet and bitter all at once. There were a great many seeds. He took each seed from his mouth and threw it on the fire. Juice was staining his uniform but he would leave a note for Doherty to take it down to the Duignan woman and have it pressed ... (p 119)

The precise detail of the act of eating an orange is expertly, and lyrically, caught. (We may recall that Miss Mattie, in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, would not eat this fruit in public, so intimate, so messy, so sensual, is the act of consuming it. She goes upstairs to her bedroom to eat her orange.)

The character of the orange-eater in “Surrender”, the sergeant who was McGahern’s ghastly father, is, even in this passage, conveyed in “he would leave a note for Doherty to take it down to the Duignan woman and have it pressed”: his authority, his casual exploitation of subordinates, his attitude to women. Although since we know McGahern’s father from his son’s memoir and other fictional portrayals – Moran in Amongst Women, the father in The Dark – Keegan’s story complements the insight we already possess, confirming what we know about this man: the brave freedom fighter, the handsome highly-sexed husband, the authoritarian bully of staff, women, children, the aloof patriarchal tyrant, intriguing and dangerous. But even for the reader who has never read McGahern, Keegan’s story provides a fully fleshed out portrait of a man who finds parallels throughout her book. The complex patriarch recurs in various forms – farmer, forester, priest – in more than half the stories in this collection.

Her most effective image in “Surrender’” is not that of the oranges, which, powerful and universal as it is, is, in this context, McGahern’s, not her own. She has an addition to the fruit, however, which is of her own invention and which is even more powerful. When the sergeant goes to the shop – the quintessential McGahern Irish country shop – to collect the box of fruit, ordered in advance, the shopkeeper’s son, meaningfully named Sean, is there. (John McGahern was called Sean, the Irish form of John, in his youth.) Sean is curious about the oranges and longs for one himself. That treat is not going to be his – all the oranges are for the sergeant and he is not the kind of man who would consider giving any child a treat. However, there is some compensation for the boy: his mother has just baked a loaf of white bread, which is cooling on the windowsill, enticing, as freshly baked bread is:

The sergeant felt the boy’s hungry gaze. He took the tissue off each one [orange] and lifted it to his nose before he pushed back his cape and reached into his pocket for the money ...

She counted out the money on the kitchen table, and when he offered her something extra for the loaf, she looked at the boy. The boy’s face was paler now. His skin was chalky. When he saw his mother wrapping the loaf in the brown paper, he began to cry.

‘Mammy,’ he wailed. ‘My bread!’

‘Hush, a leanbh. I’ll make you another,’ she said. ‘I’ll do it just as soon as the sergeant leaves.’



It is a scene of casual but intense cruelty. The sergeant, in his big cape, teases the boy by opening up every single orange under his “hungry gaze”. Then, in a final act of psychological torture, he buys the fragrant loaf of white bread which had been promised the child. (Note that the child’s face is the same colour as the bread – pale and chalky – while the sergeant’s, we may surmise, is closer in hue to that of the oranges.) At this moment, we recognise the authority of the sergeant over the boy and the woman. A more graphic dramatisation of power relations can hardly be imagined.

The mother’s position is ambiguous. She is kind to the boy, but unreliable. She promises him another loaf of bread. But she sells the bread she has previously given him, so how good is her word? Nor does she keep back even a single orange for him. Is she afraid or just a canny businesswoman? Whatever it is, she puts the sergeant’s demands in front of the more legitimate ones of her son. She betrays her own child, for money and a bullying man. She gives a thing to her child – bread, the staff of life – and takes it back to bestow instead on the sergeant, the man who has already given himself a gift of such absurd luxury that he fears the whole parish is laughing at him behind his back.

 

This is a scenario which is replayed in whole or in part in two other stories in Walk the Blue Fields.

One of these is “The Parting Gift” – a story which is also, obviously, dealing with the gift motif. Although “Surrender” is the only piece in the book directly drawing on McGahern’s work, the triangle of bullying man, colluding woman and powerless child finds a close parallel in this tale, significantly placed in initial position in the collection.

“The Parting Gift” is, indeed, one of the cleverest and most subtle stories in the book. It is an entirely original version of the oft-told tale of the abusive father, the character arguably introduced to Irish fiction by McGahern in his early, flawed but most radical and powerful novel, The Dark . The father in “The Parting Gift” has plenty in common with the abusive father in The Dark, and with John McGahern’s actual father, “the sergeant” of “Surrender”.

Like him, he is an aloof, unloving countryman, a tyrant whose appetites must be satisfied by all about him. When his wife is wearied by child-bearing and no longer wants to “give” him sex, on his birthday, she gives him her daughter, (and then, probably, a son), as a substitute bedmate.

“The Parting Gift” describes the escape of the girl, probably aged about eighteen or nineteen, to New York. She was sexually abused by her father from the age of eight to twelve. The story is set on the morning of her flight to the United States. Her brother Eugene, the only character in the story who is named, will drive her to the airport. Her father does not get up to bid her goodbye:

‘No. You’re to go up to him.’

‘Go on,’ Ma says. ‘Don’t leave empty-handed.’

You go back up the stairs, stop outside his room. You haven’t gone through the door since the blood started, since you were twelve. You open it ... You feel sick.

 

The father does not give her the parting gift of money which is expected. Like the sergeant in “Surrender”, he is a taker, not a giver. She, however, has taken a gift for herself, from him, selling one of his horses to buy her plane ticket.

She’s a red chestnut with one white stocking. You sold her to buy your ticket but she will not be collected until tomorrow. That was the arrangement.

The dark story, reminiscent as it is of work by McGahern, by Marina Carr, and of many Irish stories of similar situations, is in some ways more triumphant than most of them, in that the girl here is escaping from the scene of the abuse and has succeeded in exacting some kind of revenge – she has not been given a parting gift but she has seized one for herself, and she has left a parting blow for her father, which will be delivered when she is in America. But pain outweighs any gain in this tale. Her sorrow she takes with her, as well as guilt. Her brother, it is intimated, in spite of his best intentions, is trapped on the farm. And so is her mother. Colluding, like the mother in “Surrender”, and guilty, she is both condemned and pitied by the daughter:

She waves a cowardly little wave, and you wonder if she will ever forgive you for leaving her there with her husband.

In the title story, the magnificent “Walk the Blue Fields”, Claire Keegan takes another tried and tested story of rural Ireland, that of the priest who has a love affair, and again makes of it her own startlingly original version. Her style is always superlative but in a book where not a word is out of place some of her very best writing occurs in this story.

A sense of colour is very evident, as the title itself suggests:

Earlier, the women came with flowers, each one a deeper shade of red.

The priest lifted his head and stared at the open doors where the bridesmaids, in green silk, stood silent.

The bride is a beauty whose freckled shoulders, in this dress, are bare. A long string of pearls lies heavy against her skin.

The story, essentially about the tragedy of the body which the priest endures as he sacrifices his own and his lover’s passion on the altar of duty, moves with an operatic sweep, of Wagnerian depth but with a balletic lightness of movement. There is a choreographed feel to the story, evident particularly in the setting up of the wedding scene, the overture for the main drama, which unfolds with a musical fluidity. The story’s poetry is not its only remarkable quality. Indeed, the beauty of its lyrical descriptions contrasts sharply, and comically, with finely observed accounts of social activities:

A waitress near the front desk is ladling punch. Another stands with a sharp knife, slicing a long, smoked salmon. The guests are queuing up, reaching for forks, capers, cuts of lemon.

In the dialogue of the guests, local dialect is conveyed in a heightened version which expresses its colour, richness and wit in a way which is mercifully unpatronising and never overplayed:

Mrs Jackson, the groom’s mother, comes in from the cold. Her colour is high, clashing with the lilac dress. She takes her hat off and, not knowing where to place it, puts it on again.

 

‘Where was I going wud this?’ she says. ‘An auld woman like me?’

It’s the old game he used to love but has tired of: they put themselves down so he can easily raise them up again. Always looking for the compliment.

‘Would you stop,’ he says. ‘Don’t you look marvellous?’

A sensibility combining a deeply felt response to the natural world – the trees, the flowers – a serious compassion for human suffering, especially sexual suffering, with a keen, anthropological but mischievous observation of social customs, are all demonstrated. John McGahern shared these traits. But in “Walk the Blue Fields” Keegan’s writing is more reminiscent of that of another great short story writer, Edna O’Brien – whether coincidentally or owing to actual influence I have no idea. The interest in flowers, in colours, in natural beauty, finds plenty of parallels in O’Brien’s writing. The account of the wedding, with the emphasis on its more amusing aspects, and its precise and witty descriptions of the food consumed, remind me of the hilarious hotel scenes in “Irish Revel”, one of O’Brien’s greatest short stories.

The motif of the gift occurs in “Walk the Blue Fields” as in “Surrender”, albeit in a less overt way. At the crisis of the story the bride’s pearl necklace breaks:

One pearl hits the skirting board, rolls back past Miss Dunne’s outstretched hand. She lets out a sigh as it rolls back towards the priest’s chair. He puts his hand down and lifts it. It is warm in his hand, warm from her. This, more than anything else in the day, startles him.

The pearl, mirrored by tears in the bride’s eyes, has an obvious symbolism which we, and at least three characters in the story, understand very well. The priest returns the pearl to the bride, as her husband remarks that a broken necklace is easily mended. In this story we are dealing with a gift which was freely given but not taken. It is returned to the owner – as offensive an act, in this case as tragic an act, as not giving a gift at all.

The mischievousness of Keegan’s razor sharp social observation in her title story sets her apart from McGahern. Not that his writing is devoid of such wit; but his is different. This may be an issue of gender, or an issue of generation, or an issue of personality. But there is one factor which distinguishes Claire Keegan absolutely from McGahern. And that is her attraction to the surreal. The most realistic of her stories include hints of zaniness. Real life has its strange and funny side. Keegan has the comedian’s gift of spotting the bizarre in the commonplace, as we have seen in her descriptions of a regular Irish wedding, or in the following, outsider’s, view of Christmas customs:

The women took dead fir trees and holly into their houses, strung multicoloured electric lights under the eaves. Children put pen to paper, sent letters to the North Pole.

In two stories, “The Forester’s Daughter”, and “Night of the Quicken Tree”, her attraction to the esoteric comes into its own. In these tales she finds a way of reconciling the constraints of her chosen narrative mode, that is naturalism, with a wilder inventiveness – a surrealism which is not at all alien to the world of the Irish oral storytelling, the narrative culture underpinning Irish literature of which Keegan is fully aware.

“The Forester’s Daughter”, a fable peopled by symbolically named characters – Victor and Martha, Victoria and Judge – focuses on a family, and especially on a mother/father/daughter triangle – like “The Parting Gift”. Like “Surrender” it involves a gift which is given to a child, in this case on her birthday, and subsequently taken back by her careless father, “not the type of man to remember his children’s birthdays”. (That the birthday present is a retriever, a dog which specialises in giving gifts to people, emphasises the theme). In this instance, that act of betrayal has disastrous consequences for the father.

The characters in this story have plenty in common with other farm households in Keegan’s fiction: Victor Deegan, the father, is bossy, mean, and emotionally distant. Martha, his wife, is disappointed in her marriage; Victoria, the daughter of the title is clever, bewildered, and yearning. The son is a “simpleton” – possibly a more extreme version of the trapped sons, enslaved to farm and parents, who occur in other stories. But there the similarity with the tragic cast of “The Parting Gift”, or the sad little group in the village shop in “Surrender”, ends. Because Martha, in spite of her name, is not really much of a martyr. On the contrary, she is subversive, rebellious, even something of a feminist:

Often Deegan came home from work expecting her to be there with a hot dinner but more often than not the house was empty. He’d stoop and find the big enamel plate with fried potatoes and a pair of eggs dried out in the oven.

Martha preferred to be out in wellingtons lifting a drill for onions or slashing the nettles along the lane.”

She is also creative: she tells good stories, plants trees and flowers and has a sense of humour, and, even better, of wonder, which no amount of cold comfort farming takes away from her:

The children Martha bore, she reared casually, never threatening them with anything sharper than a wooden spoon. When her first born was placed in her arms her laughter was like a pheasant rising out of the bushes.

In addition to all this, she is unfaithful to her impotent husband, and gets away with it.

Victoria Deegan, like the daughter in “The Parting Gift”, is a gifted student at school, but much wilder and stranger. A liberated version of that tragic daughter – fathered by a wandering salesman, a character with a hint of Synge’s tramp from In the Shadow of the Glen about him – she grows up a free spirit. Indeed she is a kind of changeling, a white witch, like her mother:

That she is a strange child can’t be doubted. Martha’s youngest holds funerals for dead butterflies, eats the roses and collects tadpoles from the cattle tracks, sets them free to grow legs in the pond.

Victor himself, although not madly appealing, has redeeming features. He is stingy, but he is not abusive, neither physically nor sexually. Although he has brought hardship on himself by his lust for land, the writer has some sympathy for his plight: after all, he has to support his largely mad and not very co-operative family:

Whether the dawn was blood red or a damp, ash grey, Deegan got up and placed his bare feet on the cold floor and dressed himself. Often his limbs felt stiff but, without complaint, he milked, ate his breakfast, and went to work.

The story turns on a birthday present given to Victoria by Deegan – the retriever which, I should say “whom”, she names, meaningfully, Judge – for judge he will be in this story. Later the hapless Deegan takes Judge away from Victoria, and that proves to be his nemesis. The story ends in the loss of every material thing, his life’s work, his farm: Aghowle (what a name!). But although Victoria gets her dog back and exacts revenge on Deegan, he too enjoys a kind of victory, at least temporarily: “Deegan is numb and yet he feels lighter than before. The drudgery of the past is gone and the new work has not yet started.”

In “The Forester’s Daughter” Claire Keegan’s skill and imagination have their fullest fling. It is completely original in concept, unlike other of her stories which are fresh, unique treatments of traditional Irish literary themes, such as child abuse or a priest’s love affair. It includes novel, eccentric, but convincing characters – the flower-eating Victoria, the story-telling Martha – and a father whose negative traits are, refreshingly, matched by at least a few redeeming qualities. Gothic it may be, but it is at heart a lighter, more comic story than most of those in the collection. It strikes me as a playful story, one in which the writer is enjoying herself and flexing her artistic muscles.

As in all her work, the style is superb. But in this one she tries new strategies, and stretches her technique. Examples of experimentation include the use of highly suggestive names, like Judge and Awhile; and of introducing a gift-bringing dog as a contrast to the gift-taking farmer. Above all, she demonstrates her virtuosity by employing multiple perspectives. Most short stories rely on a single point of view, unlike the polyphonic novel, where it is easy (or easier) to move from one voice to another. But in “The Forester’s Daughter” Keegan succeeds in doing in the short story what is usually the prerogative of the longer form. At various points we dip into the minds of Deegan, of Martha, of Victoria, of the simpleton son. What is most daring, and brilliant, however, is that we even see the world from the point of view of the dog:

Judge is glad he cannot speak. He has never understood the human compulsion for conversation: people, when they speak, say useless things that seldom if ever improve anything. Their words make them sad. Why can’t they stop talking and embrace each other?

This story, of betrayal, infidelity, destruction and redemption, of men, women, children, flowers and animals, is a virtuoso performance by a writer who is always a consummate mistress of her craft. It is the story in which the orange-eating tyrant of “Surrender” meets his match – in which the children (and the animals) get their own backs on the stingy patriarchs of rural Ireland. The parents who give a thing and take it back are well and truly judged, condemned and penalised, by a canine judge and a jury of flower-eating girl, crazy wife and simpleton boy. The dark, heavy forces of rural materialism are pitched against the light-hearted hosts of the music-makers, and the latter seem to carry the day – although the final line is ambivalent.

“The Forester’s Daughter” is Keegan’s finest, most original story. It is the tale in which she seems to be most true to her own unique vision and in which she demonstrates best her quite remarkable range of literary gifts.

Everything Claire Keegan writes is singular and impressive. She always writes with breathtaking precision. Her choice of word and image, her ear for colloquial speech, her sense of rhythm, are unsurpassed. She is a writer gifted with both a strong sense of drama (without which the fiction writer might as well pack it in) and perfect pitch.

James Joyce described his short stories as “epiphanies”, a clever definition which has been both descriptive and, inevitably, over time, prescriptive. The term was drawn from the language of religion, in which he was steeped. He might perhaps have gone a step farther and used an even more dramatic term drawn from the same well: transubstantiation. The finest short stories are narratives told in time, but they aspire to, not just the condition of music but the condition of things. They become artefacts. This is what happens in Claire Keegan’s stories. In them the word is made flesh.


Éilís ní Dhuibhne is a novelist, short story writer and literary critic. Her latest novel is Fox Swallow Scarecrow (Blackstaff Press, 2007).

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