Irish Fiction: Claire Keegan’s Debut

Galway, “Antarctica,” & post-colonial feminism (from the Los Angeles Times Book Review)

Jerry Griswold

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ANTARCTICA By Claire Keegan Atlantic Monthly Press: 224 pp., $23

Every spring, the city of Galway hosts the Cuirt International Festival of Literature. Ireland’s premier literary event, it draws the cognoscenti and the country’s leading writers and critics. Finding myself there in 2000 but uncertain which events to attend, I let others lead and followed a gaggle of Ireland’s well-known and established writers, who were going to listen to a young woman who had just published her first book of stories. The buzz was that she was the real thing. I heard Claire Keegan and was thunderstruck.

Keegan read “Men and Women,” a story in her impressive debut collection Antarctica. Set in contemporary and rural Ireland (small farms, muddy cows), the tale turns on a gesture: Because of a bad hip, Da never gets out of his car to open the gate but expects his wife to do so, even when she’s wearing her best dress for a night out. But, his daughter observes, Da’s hip isn’t bad enough to prevent him from flirting and whirling other women around at the Christmas dance. Humiliated again, on the trip home, her mother does not get out of the car when the time comes; instead, complaining, Da is obliged to get out and open the gate, and then he is stunned when his wife slides behind the steering wheel and drives for the first time in her life, leaving him behind, hat in hand.

Keegan’s feminism, apparent here, is also present in “Quare Name for a Boy,” the story of a young woman come home from England to make an announcement to the fellow she had an affair with over the Christmas holidays. She’s pregnant and altogether nervous about meeting her lover again and telling him. But when he’s absolutely peachy about the news — for example, not knowing if it’s a boy or girl, she suggests the name “Daphne” and he endearingly responds, “It’s a quare name for a boy” — this moment of saccharine goodness makes her realize that the superficial person sitting opposite her is the kind of man the Irish call a “lad,” and she resolves to raise the child by herself. Thinking of how her aunts dote on their menfolk, she concludes: “I will not be a woman who shelters her man same as he’s a boy. That part of my people ends with me.”

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Jerry Griswold

Writer/critic/professor/journalist: children’s literature, culture, film, travel. Seven books, 100's of essays in NY&LA Times.