Walk the Blue Fields
by Claire Keegan
Faber ₤10.99, 164 pages
FT bookshop price: ₤8.79
Every tale has its own particular scent, says the protagonist of one of the seven stories in Claire Keegan’s latest collection. If this is true, then Walk the Blue Fields smells of wind-driven winter rain, of salt and seaweed and sour grass. It has the tang of peaty bogs and wet goat’s hair, of ash-wood smoke, fried eels and boiling kettles, of weather-chafed skin, and of stout on the breath of surly Irish men. Above all, the odour rising from the pages of Keegan’s second short-story volume is the acrid scent of regret.
”The Parting Gift” follows a young woman as she prepares to leave her parents’ house and fly across the Atlantic, relieved yet burdened by recollections of the irreparable damage wrought by family ties. ”Walk the Blue Fields” is the story of a village priest, silently lamenting the decision that has coloured his life. In ”Dark Horses”, a man is haunted by an episode that alienated the woman he loves.
In one of the most moving stories, ”The Forester’s Daughter”, Martha is unhappily married to a boorish farmer who is incapable of showing affection towards her or their children. She is a natural storyteller, ”her pale hands plucking unlikely stories like green plums that ripened with the telling at her hearth”. Out of desperation, as much as a wish to be acknowledged by her husband, she tells an audience of entranced neighbours one of the saddest tales - her own.
”Close to the Water’s Edge” moves away from rural Ireland and hovers over an uncomfortable family occasion involving a Harvard student, his doting mother and her brash millionaire boyfriend, gathered at a Texan beach resort. In straying from the turf Keegan knows so minutely some nuance is lost, though not the author’s ability to observe the signs of an emotional storm about to break.
In ”Surrender”, a homage to Irish novelist John McGahern, an army sergeant is forced to make a difficult choice by an impatient fiancee. ”Women’s minds were made of glass: so clear and yet their thought broke easily, yielding to other glassy thoughts that were even harder,” he muses. This, indeed, may be one of the book’s central themes - the abyss of incomprehension that separates men and women.
The priest in the book’s title story realises that ”two people hardly ever want the same thing at any given point,” and this, he finds, ”is sometimes the hardest part of being human”. Martha, the lonely wife in ”The Forester’s Daughter”, is wary of ”trying to make sense of another’s words, and then her own and all the possibilities for misunderstanding that went on in between.” We are told about Stack, in the book’s last story, ”Night of the Quicken Trees”, that ”Now that [he] knew a woman, there grew the knowledge that he would never understand women.”
Keegan’s debut collection, Antarctica, garnered comparisons with fellow Irish author William Trevor. Her follow-up has confirmed that she belongs in that fine story-telling tradition that harks back to Anton Chekhov. Sparse, bleak and unsentimental, her stories suggest that the only thing men and women truly share is the loneliness that confines them.