In the title story of Claire Keegan’s second collection, Walk the Blue Fields, a priest is officiating at a wedding in rural Ireland: the bride is late, the organist has to play the Bach toccata twice, ‘a thrill of doubt’ is ‘spreading through the pews’. She turns up eventually, and the ceremony goes off all right, but an intimation of trouble has been set reverberating in the reader from the very first sentence: ‘Earlier, the women came with flowers, each one a deeper shade of red.’ Why begin with that word ‘earlier’, which might seem a weak link back out of the story-time? Earlier than when? Why not just begin at the moment the women bring the flowers? And why allow a syntactical ambivalence, so that although it must be the flowers that are ‘each one a deeper shade’, it sounds as though the women themselves are meant, each one redder than the last? And anyway: red flowers, at a wedding?
This questioning is characteristic of the readings these stories exact. The women came ‘earlier’ because the delayed moment, the bride’s arrival, is the necessary door through which the priest’s story has to pass to begin to be told: if she hadn’t turned up it would have become a different story. The flowers and the women are red because it is that kind of wedding, it flares with a blatant sexuality, something hot and unchaste. The groom’s brother, the ‘best man’, is a parodic sign of a potential in the groom himself. Dancing, he clumsily breaks the bride’s pearl necklace, and in the gents the priest is aware of him urinating in a ‘long and noisy’ stream: ‘it is a huge cock and he has difficulty getting it back into the rented trousers.’ ‘“A fucken ornament, Father,” he says. “Much like your own.”’ The old bride-imagery of virginity is invoked only in passing, in the first paragraph, the bridesmaids waiting in green silk, and ‘beyond them, a pale cloud . . . splitting in the April sky’: a dream of elsewhere. (The red of the wedding may also have a resonance with the ‘Chinaman’ who is mentioned at the wedding feast, and becomes part of the story’s essential subject later.) ‘Each one a deeper shade of red’ doesn’t describe the real order in which the differently red flowers arrive, but is a rhetorical swelling in perception, a funnel leading deep into the hot life of connecting and begetting which the priest has not chosen.
All down the first page – to take that as an example – Claire Keegan’s writing is open-textured in this way, making unsettling leaps of language, not quite enclosing its meaning. ‘In the vestry, the priest noticed how the bride’s hand shook as she lifted the heavy fountain pen, how sparingly the dark ink flowed onto the register but Jackson’s bold strokes clearly signified his name.’ The ‘but’ – without the semi-colon or colon we might expect in front of it – isn’t quite doing its usual work as a conjunction. The relation between the two perceptions – the bride’s hesitation, and the groom’s clear confidence that his name is the proper sign for himself – can’t be quite fixed by the grammar. Are these things in conflict, the one a reservation against the other; or is the ‘but’ a ‘yet’, a reassurance? Will it work, this marriage? Everything glistens with point, but what it all means can’t quite be mapped in ordinary sentence logic. This builds a suspenseful sense of the secret withheld, the key to the scene, the priest’s more than professional involvement in this particular wedding; but it also imitates the confused operations of perception. This writing is the opposite to that stocking-stitch which knits the flickering and layering of apprehension smoothly into causal consequence.
In bald summary the story could sound as stickily romantic as Lorna Doone. The priest and the bride, Kate, have had a secret love affair, but he won’t leave the clergy; defiantly she flaunts her second choice at him, he endures the ceremony, accepts the wad of notes pressed into his hand by the bride’s father, who can’t understand why his daughter wants this raw, dangerous husband. ‘You have to stand back and let them at it.’ This is what is exciting about the best stories in this collection: their rich content, the writer’s fearless grasp of her strong subject matter. The material is a border country where exchanges happen between myth, a historical past and a contemporary Ireland. The wedding reception, for example, is held in a hotel in the grounds of a former Protestant estate; for the priest something ‘about the place conjures up the ancient past: the hound, the spear, the spinning wheel’, but at the wedding feast we know we’re up to date, because the guests have to go outside to smoke. The older women are respectful to the priest, but some of the men won’t hold back their biting, coarse talk in his presence; we can’t be sure how much of their malice comes from what they may know about this one priest’s transgression, how much from the general slippage of attitudes towards the Church.
One of the most difficult tasks for a writer is to put down as literature something that plausibly imitates the wit and brutality and resonance-in-the-moment of living speech. There is a strong tradition in Irish fiction of carrying this off, going back at least to Joyce; but it has to come fresh from the ear too, and Keegan’s ear is very sure. She’s good at the middle-aged women flirting safely with the priest in an ‘old game’, putting ‘themselves down so he can easily raise them up again’. ‘Where was I going wud this?’ the groom’s mother says about her hat. ‘An auld woman like me.’ But she can do just as well the macho aggressive banter in the gents, or a smouldering nastiness around the table. They talk over their fish (‘I wonder where they poached the salmon’) about the Chinaman, perhaps a refugee, who is minding ewes – he hasn’t lost a lamb yet – and also does some healing from his caravan. ‘“He won’t have a dog. Has some terror of dogs,” says Mike Brennan from the hill. “He’d probably ate the bloody sheep dog,” Sinnott says, stretching out for the last roast potato . . . “Sure he’s a Chink: ates dog and shites tay!”’ When Sinnott says pointedly in the priest’s hearing that ‘we all know the white cloth is aisy stained,’ one of the women comes back at him. ‘It’s much you’d know about stains . . . and you wud five sisters ironing every crease out of your pyjamas.’
After the party the priest walks for miles and finds the Chinaman, without having known he was looking for him; talk and its contests, its play of attitudes, is left behind, they communicate in signs, and the priest submits to a massage. It is the first time anyone has touched him in three years, and it makes him properly, for the first time in the story, remember the girl he has loved, dragging something out of him, ‘from the base of his spine, from his tailbone, up through his body’: some pain of regret or loss (guilt isn’t made much of, we don’t believe he feels it). He leaves the Chinaman the wad of notes that he himself was paid, for his own service to the mysteries.
These elements, in another writer, in another decade, might have been combined to make a story about a waste, a mistake: how could this man have turned down the gift of sensual love and marriage in return for the dead letter of the faith? Here, however, we’re made to feel that the conflict around the priest’s choice of his vocation is a real one, though not in a sense that requires any underpinning from Catholic belief. His choice is not simply between the institution of the Church and sex: partly, it’s between the solitude of the priest-role and the heat of merging with the human crowd, and both are given their separate value. The priest responds to the idea of the Chinaman’s lonely, ordered life: the clean tools propped where he’s been tending his kitchen garden, the picture on the caravan wall of an empty bowl. ‘He is a lithe man, handsome, moving freely about his home.’ The bowl, in a twist of complication, recalls to the priest something Kate said once, when they spent the night together: ‘She believed that in every conversation, an invisible bowl existed. Talk was the art of placing decent words into the bowl and taking others out. In a loving conversation, you discovered yourself in the kindest possible way, and at the end the bowl was, once again, empty.’ Her distinctive image – it establishes her as much more than the necessary woman-sign around which the priest’s dilemma can revolve – inadvertently gave him a way of making sense of his choice against her: the idea of the bowl has multiple resonances, but among its meanings must be that emptiness can be a kind of wholeness, after the end of exchanges in the flesh.
A connection is even made, lightly, between whatever happened to the priest under the hands of the Chinaman, his submission to sexual love with Kate, and his original, and still unfailing, sense of being called by God: they all come together in ‘the old, cherished feeling of his will subsiding’. In the final sentence of the story, walking home, the priest is ‘thinking about his life tomorrow, as a priest, deciphering, as best he can, the Roman language of the trees’. We aren’t meant to think he is deluded in his belief in his mission of interpretation, in his being set apart from those who can’t read in nature (‘the trees’) the messages (‘Roman language’) culture has found there; even if all the implications of authority and law in ‘Roman’ are also inextricably part of the historical mix. Keegan writes with ambivalence about religious mysteries, and about the new boldness with which they’re disparaged at the wedding dinner. Her position in this story is perhaps something like John McGahern’s. ‘The collapse of the Church’s absolute power’ in Ireland, he wrote in ‘God and Me’, an autobiographical essay, ‘has brought freedom and sanity in certain areas of human behaviour after long suppression’, but also ‘a new intolerance’. And ‘the soaring spires of the Gothic churches . . . grew out of a human need,’ which can be ‘alleviated by material ease and scientific advancement but never abolished’.
Keegan’s debt to McGahern is significant, and avowed; one of the stories in this collection, ‘Surrender’, is explicitly worked up from a suggestion in McGahern’s Memoir (it’s finely done, but seems too dependent on McGahern’s own version of his father). An appreciation of McGahern’s delicately cumulative realism, resisting explication or resolution, is somewhere behind the first three stories in particular, although Keegan’s vision and style are distinctively her own, inflected from the perspective of her younger generation, richly allusive and dreamy. Her best stories seem to grow, like McGahern’s, from the underside of the precise detail, up towards their shape and implication; others – in common with the stories in Antarctica, her first book – are more playful or fantastic, and tend more to overview and epigrammatic statement (‘forgiving might mean forgetting and she preferred to hold onto her bitterness,’ or ‘To be an adult was, for the greatest part, to be in darkness’). ‘The Parting Gift’ and ‘Dark Horses’ both achieve, like the title story, density and intensity on the page, combining exact sensuous detail (a pint of stout settles, ‘the dark falling slowly away from the cream’) and caught fragments of social exchange with groping intimations of shapes and meaning.
Brady in ‘Dark Horses’, neglecting winter work on his land, letting his days slip away in bars, can only find in sleep the wholeness he’s lost: ‘In the night, Brady dreams the woman back into his life again.’ His panicking despair is vivid because it’s never named, but made tangible in the cold, neglected kitchen, the knife in the empty marmalade jar, the bread left on the step because the dog hasn’t come home to eat it. A morning spasm of resolution – to dose his heifers, clear his drains, put in ‘a good day’s welding in the sheds’ – is too easily deflected into the bar. When at night he climbs, drunk, under the bedclothes, to try to find his dreams again, he dares not take his boots off, in case without them he won’t be able to get back up to his life in the morning. His dreams – like that momentary reverberation of the mythic in ‘Walk the Blue Fields’, when the priest remembers ‘the hound, the spear, the spinning wheel’ – feel as if they come from an ancient stock: his hounds are hunting on the hill with the woman’s horse. The archetypes of power and desire and beauty are too difficult to attain in waking life, though their signs are everywhere around. We learn it was Brady himself who drove away the woman in the first place, and in an act of treachery against that very element in her he is now doomed to dream of: after a drunken argument he put her horses out onto the road.
A different archetype is transposed into a contemporary context in ‘The Parting Gift’: an Irish girl, leaving for New York, says her farewells to the farm where she grew up. Her feelings are finely equivocal: it’s an escape from ugly secrets of sexual abuse buried in her family life, but she’s torn by her love for the place and her rooted knowledge of it, and by her brother’s decency and kindness, his dutiful subjection to the rhythms of farm life. (Perhaps the hidden subtext of Joyce’s emigration story is opened up here; in Dubliners, what is the truth of Eveline’s incapacitating relationship with her father, which prevents her from leaving?) ‘The Parting Gift’ is narrated in the present tense, structured in what feels like a headlong rush away: anywhere, elsewhere, towards an unknown America. In a finely managed surprise in the last sentences, however, the girl’s destination turns out to be somewhere closer at hand. ‘When you find it, there is hardly anyone there but you know this is the place.’ All along she has only been moving towards finding herself alone at last – in the ladies at the airport – with her loss and her own story.