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The Feminist Realism of Claire Keegan

The Feminist Realism of Claire Keegan
The Feminist Realism of Claire Keegan

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Halfway through Small Things Like These, the Irish writer Claire Keegan’s Booker-shortlisted 2022 novel, something out of the ordinary happens. The coal merchant Bill Furlong discovers during a Christmas-week delivery that a young woman has been shut in a nunnery’s coal shed overnight. Her bare feet are black with dust; she has had to go to the toilet where she slept. Horror is shot into the narrative like a hidden pouch of stage blood being pierced. Bill’s discovery seems out of a fairy tale—the woman with anthracite soles—and yet it appears within a 114-page novel that opens with a description of bare trees, wind, smoke, and rain, as if it were just another example of literary realism.

But this moment, perhaps the novel’s least “realistic,” is also, as it turns out, its truest. Since 2003, the nonprofit advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes Research has been documenting the punishments meted out to the so-called fallen women—sex workers, unwed mothers, the mentally ill—held in Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries from the 18th century until 1996, when the last one was closed down. Beyond solitary confinement, meals were denied, heads were shaved, bodies were injured. Women and infants died and were buried in unmarked graves. What Bill finds in the convent’s coal hole at night is just as real as what happens in his family’s kitchen every year at Christmas: the chopping of cherries, blanching of almonds, and wrapping of the cake tin with two layers of brown paper. Keegan uses the discreet, legitimating, 19th-century strategies of realist fiction to reveal savage truths about the world we live in. Bill’s life is built up so patiently with each exactly right detail that you do not disbelieve the horrors when they come.

Keegan has been not-so-gently uncovering reality for decades now. Born on a farm in County Wicklow in 1968, she published her first book of stories, Antarctica, in 1999 and since then she has garnered prizes and fans whenever she allows another story or novel into print. (It is not as often as we should like.) Her newest collection, So Late in the Day, brings together three stories: the title one, which appeared in The New Yorker last year, along with two older ones, “The Long and Painful Death” from her 2007 collection, Walk the Blue Fields, and “Antarctica,” the lead story from her first book. So this latest volume isn’t exactly new, but no matter: It is a delicious swoosh back in time, displaying Keegan’s career from its first stirrings to its full blossoming. We witness the gradual marbling of her realism with radicalism. Over the years, she doesn’t seem to have changed her mind about the shabby way the world treats women, but she has progressively made her point in a gentler and more devastating manner. I did not think realism could be truly feminist until I saw Keegan wield its techniques.

Let’s start with “Antarctica,” the last story in the book and the first one Keegan wrote. It’s Christmastime, and a “happily married woman” has come to the city for a weekend, to pick out gifts for her children and to sleep with someone other than her husband—she’d always wondered what that would be like. In the pub, someone—aloha shirt, red face, nearly empty beer glass—presents himself as the “loneliest man in the world.” When they leave together, “the air spike[s] her lungs.” Keegan’s descriptions are vivid, lurid even: pattern, warmth, sharpness, aloneness. Her target is unprepossessing, and yet it doesn’t really matter: The fantasy is lived out almost without hitch. “There isn’t a woman on earth doesn’t need looking after,” he says once they are through his front door.

They have sex, he cooks, and she allows herself a cigarette—the first in years. She thinks that she “could live like this.” But her life will be decided for her, in a dark twist that, like the girl in the coal cellar, seems to come from another genre. Keegan forces incongruous elements together, but here, unlike in Small Things Like These, it doesn’t feel authentic. Earlier in the evening, the man had picked up ingredients on the way back to his place: Colombian coffee, two bottles of Chianti, limes, a headless trout, and a block of feta cheese. This jumbled shopping list is that not of a flesh-and-blood man but of a fictional villain, a walking admonishment for women who exceed their bounds. And the volta is particularly cruel on the reader who believes that men can see, and want to alleviate, the pain women experience from living in a world not made for them.

The book’s previous story, “The Long and Painful Death,” follows a day in the life of a 39-year-old woman writer on retreat. She arrives in the dead of night at the Heinrich Böll Cottage on Achill Island, an isle off Ireland’s west coast that the German writer frequently visited. The next morning, she emerges into the light of a blank day, “hungry to read, and to work.” But before coffee, the phone rings. A German scholar wants to see where Böll’s Irish travelogue, Irisches Tagebuch, was composed. He tells the woman:

“I am standing outside the Böll House now.”
She turned towards the window and lifted a green apple from the cardboard box.
‘I am not dressed,” she said. “And I am working.”
“It is an intrusion,” he said.
She looked into the sink; daylight was reflecting off the steel … She stood there in her nightdress holding the apple in her hand and thinking about this man standing outside. “Are you about this evening?”

Somehow she has agreed to let a stranger into her writing day, which also happens to be her birthday. The reader’s attention is so diverted by the particulars—the green apple, the daylight, the nightdress, the steel sink; it is all so real—that they hardly notice that the visit may not be in the woman’s interest. She spends her day baking a chocolate cake, walking on shining wet pebbles that clank “like delft under her feet,” and swimming in the sea amid a tangle of dulse. Lying on her back in the salt water, she thinks that this is “what she should be doing, at this moment, with her life.” She reads a Chekhov story about a woman who breaks off her engagement, which calls to mind a man she had once thought of living with. As evening arrives, she whips cream, then picks blackberries from a bush and mashes them with sugar. The scholar returns and presents her with a bottle of Cointreau, still in its duty-free foam net.

They don’t have much of a conversation. The scholar keeps repeating that a stay at the Böll cottage is sought after, but there is not much the writer can say to this until she finds a way to laugh about it: “They must give it to the good-looking applicants so.” He disagrees. “No,” he says, his face unsmiling. “You should have seen my wife. My wife was beautiful.” The purpose of his visit is suddenly obvious: He wants to prove something to himself by looking down on her. She gets up to clear the table. “Here you are, a supposed writer, in this house of Heinrich Böll, making cakes,” he says. “Don’t you know that Heinrich Böll won the Nobel Prize for Literature?” He leaves, “hopping in temper,” and she is finally left alone with her thoughts, which soon condense on the page into a short story about entitled men, failed engagements, the hot salt tide, and a scholar who eats two large slices of chocolate cake. In the gaps between details, misogyny sparkles.

“Misogyny” was the working title for “So Late in the Day,” Keegan’s most recent story and the book’s opener.  It came into being when Keegan was discussing with her students—she has taught writing in Ireland in the periods between her books—the difference between tension and drama. To illustrate the distinction, she came up with this story, there and then, the subtlest variation yet on her theme of male cruelty, and her most successful, I think, for that. The protagonist, a young man called Cathal, is at his Dublin office on a hot Friday in late July, and only when he gets home do we realize that he has been at the office on the day he was meant to be married.

He had met Sabine, a Frenchwoman, at a conference in Toulouse, and they began spending weekends together that started at the farmers’ market and ended with a meal of chicken roasted with garlic and thyme. Even early on, he notices the price of things—more than six euros for cherries that he needs to pay for because Sabine forgot her purse, 128 euros plus tax for resizing the engagement ring—but not what a fiancée who bakes a clafoutis with those cherries and takes in stride your clumsy proposal of marriage is worth. His lack of generosity bothers Sabine. “You know what is at the heart of misogyny?” she says to him in an argument about the cherries. “It’s simply about not giving … Whether it’s believing you should not give us the vote or not give help with the dishes—it’s all clitched onto the same wagon.” Can Cathal at all see what she means? “It’s not ‘clitched,’” he says. “It’s ‘hitched.’” He can’t even let her have her gallicism.

On the could-have-been wedding day, Cathal remembers that the clafoutis was burned at the edge but raw in the center: “Didn’t they say that a woman in love burned your dinner and that when she no longer cared she served it up half-raw?” Of course Sabine loved him, and of course she couldn’t be sure he hadn’t been crushed by misogyny too. The ruined pudding is evocative: Not only do we believe that a clafoutis is hard to pull off, but we believe, too, in Sabine’s indecision about attaching herself to this man, and in turn, fearful Cathal, who wants to love but can’t let himself be that vulnerable. When realism is more revelatory of the world than reality itself, what can you do but feel grateful for Keegan’s mastery of it?


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