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Claire Keegan's 'stories of women and men' explore what goes wrong between them

Grove Atlantic

Claire Keegan's newly published short story collection, So Late in the Day, contains three tales that testify to the screwed up relations between women and men. To give you a hint about Keegan's views on who's to blame for that situation, be aware that when the title story was published in France earlier this year, it was called, "Misogynie."

In that story, a Dublin office worker named Cathal is feeling the minutes drag by on a Friday afternoon. Something about the situation soon begins to seem "off." Cathal's boss comes over and urges him to "call it a day"; Cathal absentmindedly neglects to save the budget file he's been working on. He refrains from checking his messages on the bus ride home, because, as we're told, he: "found he wasn't ready — then wondered if anyone ever was ready for what was difficult or painful." Cathal eventually returns to his empty house and thinks about his fiancée who's moved out.

On first reading we think: poor guy, he's numb because he's been dumped; on rereading — and Keegan is the kind of writer whose spare, slippery work you want to reread — maybe we think differently. Keegan's sentences shape shift the second time 'round, twisting themselves into a more emotionally complicated story. For instance, here's her brief description of how Cathal's bus ride home ends:

Perhaps Cathal is clumsily trying to console himself; perhaps, though, the French were onto something in entitling this story, "Misogynie."

It's evident from the arrangement of this collection that Keegan's nuanced, suggestive style is one she's achieved over the years. The three short stories in So Late in the Day appear in reverse chronological order, so that the last story, "Antarctica," is the oldest, first published in 1999. It's far from an obvious tale, but there's a definite foreboding "woman-in-peril" vibe going on throughout "Antarctica." In contrast, the central story of this collection, called, "The Long and Painful Death," which was originally published in 2007, is a pensive masterpiece about male anger toward successful women and the female impulse to placate that anger.

Our unnamed heroine, a writer, has been awarded a precious two-week's residency at the isolated Heinrich Böll house on Achill Island, a real place on Ireland's west coast. She arrives at the house, exhausted, and falls asleep on the couch. Keegan writes that: "When she woke, she felt the tail end of a dream — a feeling, like silk — disappearing; ..."

The house phone starts ringing and the writer, reluctantly, answers it. A man, who identifies himself as a professor of German literature, says he's standing right outside and that he's gotten permission to tour the house.

Our writer, like many women, needs more work on her personal boundaries: She puts off this unwanted visitor 'till evening; but she's not strong enough to refuse him altogether. After she puts the phone down, we're told that:

"What had begun as a fine day was still a fine day, but had changed; now that she had fixed a time, the day in some way was obliged to proceed in the direction of the German's coming."

She spends valuable writing time making a cake for her guest, who, when he arrives, turns out to be a man with "a healthy face and angry blue eyes." He mentions something about how:

"Many people want to come here. ... Many, many applications." "

"I am lucky, I know," [murmurs our writer.]

The professor is that tiresome kind of guest who "could neither create conversation nor respond nor be content to have none." That is, until he reveals himself to be a raging green-eyed monster of an academic.

This story is the only one of the three that has what I'd consider to be a happy ending. But, maybe upon rereading I'll find still another tone lurking in Keegan's magnificently simple, resonant sentences.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.