Claire Keegan

LifeWorksCriticismCommentaryQuotationsReferencesNotes

Life
1969- ; b. Co. Wicklow and grew up on a farm at Clonegal, Co Wicklow, the youngest of six children; ed. New Orleans, USA, and Cardiff; issued Antartica (2000), stories, and winner of the Rooney Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book of the Year Award, and Arts Council Macauley Fellowship; also winner of William Trevor Prize, Francis McManus Award, and Martin Healy Prize; lives in Co. Monaghan; issued Walk the Blue Fields (2007), won the Edge Hill Prize; now lives in Co. Wexford; due to take up residency Villanova University, Pennsylvania, in Jan. 2008.

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Works
Short fiction, Antartica and Other Stories (London: Faber & Faber 1999, 2000), 224pp. Novel, Walk the Blue Fields (London: Faber & Faber 2007), 163pp.

Contribs., “Night of the Quicken Trees”, in Caroline Walsh, ed., Arrows in Flight: Stories from a New Ireland (Dublin: Townhouse; Scribner 2002), pp.129-65; “Men and Women”, in Rebecca O’Connor, Scéalta: Short Stories by Irish Women (www.telegram-books.com 2007).

Her story “Foster” was short-listed for the Davy Byrne’s Irish Writing Award, 2009 among 800 entries.

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Criticism
Paddy Bullard, review of Marcus, ed., The Faber Book of Irish Short Stories, in Times Literary Supplement (13 May 2005), pp.21-22 [extract]; Rosita Boland, ‘Carefully choosing her words’, [interview-article] in The Irish Times (12 May 2007) [extract]; Liam Harte, ‘Critical acclaim that was not misplaced’, review of Walk the Blue Fields, in The Irish Times (12 May 2007) [extract], “Weekend”. See further notices under Commentary, infra.

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Commentary
Declan Kiberd, review of David Marcus, ed., The Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories, in The Irish Times (30 April 2005), describes “The Forester’s Daughter” by Claire Keegan as ‘an artful meditation on the life of a woman in a remote farm beyond Coolattin and on the subversive power of the story-teller’s art to challenge the repressions of a traditional community’. Writes of ‘Keegan’s ongoing interest in the ways in which old superstitions and sotires may or may not assist people in ordering their lives’ and calls Keegan ‘true successor’ to MacLeod and McGahern and ‘a writer already touched with greatness’ who ‘has yet to produce in the “applied” form’. Further: ‘It is notable, however, at most powerful contribution here once again written by Claire Keegan, who has yet to produce in the “applied” form.’ (p.11.)

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Paddy Bullard, review of David Marcus, ed., The Faber Book of Irish Short Stories, in Times Literary Supplement (13 May 2005), pp.21-22, remarks: ‘Keegan is widely regarded as the most promising of the younger short stor writers, and she is certainly the most dedicated to the formal demands of the genre, but “The Forester’s Daughter” does not represent her best work - a kinder editor would have set his red pen to the narrative passages in which Keegan sees through the eyes of a Labrador retriever.’ (p.22.)

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Christina Hunt Mahony, review of Antartica, in Irish University Review (MS source; forthcoming in May 2002):

‘Claire Keegan has sounded the gong the first time out. Her laconic insight, her fine-line sketches, her skill at conveying anticipation and fear and the frisson which results from either, make the short story her métier juste. The economy of her display within these fifteen stories suggests an authorial discipline mastered at an early stage too. Yet the stories aren’t all that short – they are, rather, filled with incident, implication and a deceptively dainty gradation of human experience which can have the countering effect of strenuously categorising actions and reactions and inexorably locking the doors after they have occurred.

  Consider the predicament of the unnamed married woman in the title story who goes off, with nothing more to complain of in her marriage than a vague ennui, on a solo weekend of Christmas shopping. She picks up a rather sleazy stranger who takes her to his flat, and after the niceties of bathing her and sharing drinks and a trout supper, makes love to her. Writing in the tradition that requires all aberrant wives to suffer disproportionately for their sexual sins, Keegan effectively misleads the reader to believe there is escape from the claustrophobic love-nest by inserting the language of exploration and the vastness of continents. (She says “Pretend you’re America. I’ll be Columbus” as she climbs on top. He mentions a former marriage and an unlikely honeymoon in Africa. She watches a documentary on Antarctica on TV while he cooks). Keegan also teases, in the best suspense-thriller vein, with false clues – the shotgun cartridge she spies will not be instrumental in the horror that awaits her. Instead the author, exhibiting a sensibility that seems at times to revel in an Old Testament sense of justice, leaves the woman who began by feeling metaphorically imprisoned in the domestic round a naked and bound prisoner in the flat, left to contemplate the greater uncharted expanses of Hell and Eternity.’

Further, of the American stories:
‘Sounding in these tales more like Flannery O’Connor or Carson McCullers, Keegan inserts a young, female and foreign consciousness into an alien and often dark Southern environment.’
In conclusion:
‘Claire Keegan writes of the search for human warmth and connection in inhospitable emotional climates, and whether in the sultry South or in inclement Wicklow winters Antarctica looms.’ Cites “A Scent of Winter”, “Ride if you Dare”, “Where Water is Deepest”; “The Ginger Rogers Sermon”. “Storms”, “Burns”, “The Burning Palms” and “Love in the Grass”.

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Rosita Boland, interview-article with Claire Keegan, in The Irish Times (12 May 2007): ‘Claire Keegan grew up on a farm in Clonegal, Co Wicklow, the youngest of six children. Recalling her childhood there, in a short piece of memoir seven years ago, she wrote: “I was a strange child, even as children go. I followed ducks who were laying out, wearing the hood of my anorak so they wouldn’t recognise me, but they never led me to their nests. I cleaned the tom-cat’s nails with the blunt end of a darning needle, sat on the Nowlans’ ditch with salt and pepper and seasoned their lettuces, their scallions. I ate green gooseberries, blackcurrants, rhubarb stalks, blackberries, sloes. I got belly-aches. I walked naked through the streams of Newry wood with hens’ feathers stuck in my plaits.” [...] She chose the title for the new book because she liked the sound of it. “The picture of it, the image of it. It’s very seldom you see people walking the fields now. Unless there’s stock in the fields. You very seldom see people walking the land, even though we’re supposed to have a love of land in this country. I sometimes can’t help thinking: is it a love of ownership, rather than the land itself? And that’s what the priest in the story wants to do - walk.”’ (See full text in RICORSO Library, Criticism > Reviews, attached or via index [password required].)

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Liam Harte, ‘Critical acclaim that was not misplaced’, review of Walk the Blue Fields, in The Irish Times (12 May 2007), “Weekend”: ‘Keegan’s portrayal of painful experience is bracingly unsentimental. The absence of self-pity is exemplified by the opening story, “The Parting Gift”, which describes a daughter’s last morning with her family before she emigrates to the US. As in many of Keegan’s stories, the girl is never named, though she is no less real for that. Indeed, her namelessness underlines her numbness, as does the story’s second-person point of view, which evokes the speaker’s detachment from the events she describes, while simultaneously assuming a degree of intimacy on the reader’s part. Having made us more malleable, this dispassionate voice reveals itself to be the voice of trauma, without ever breaking register. Such deft management of tone accentuates the girl’s emotional diminishment, which is further amplified by her listless movement through contracting spaces: from kitchen to car to toilet cubicle. / “The Parting Gift” suggests that Keegan’s technique may be partly indebted to Hemingway’s “iceberg” aesthetic, where four-fifths of the narrative lurks beneath the surface of the text. [...] If Hemingway is an oblique influence in these stories, then McGahern is a central interlocutory presence. Walk the Blue Fields is an intriguing homage to the late Leitrim writer. Throughout the first five stories, there is an alluvial build-up of idiomatic and thematic allusion - even the cover image of a solitary yew tree exudes a McGahernesque pathos - which eventually becomes explicit in the penultimate story, “Surrender”, subtitled “after McGahern”. The story was inspired by McGahern’s recollection in Memoir of his father telling how, when he knew he was going to be married, he bought two dozen oranges and ate them on a park bench in Galway. Keegan’s imaginative response to this stray memory is fascinatingly suggestive in the way it adds resonance to it by releasing its deeper meanings, making the story a compelling act of creative elaboration. / Keegan’s thematic debt to McGahern is most evident in her dramatisation of the illusions and disillusions of love. Like him, she uses epiphanies sparingly to crystallise the pain as well as the possibilities of different kinds of desire. [...]’ (See full text, in RICORSO Library, Criticism > Reviews, attached or via index [password required])

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Notes
Summer Books” [annual column], in The Irish Times (24 June 2000), compiled by Rosita Sweetman, notes that she is travelling to Chateau de Lavigny for three weeks, bringing to read: Blanaid McKinney, Big Mouth; Kerry Hardie, Hannie Bennet’s Winter Marriage, and Toni Morrison, Paradise (‘they shoot white girls first’); Kazuo Ishiguro, When we Were Orphans; Gabriel Rosenstock, Irish Weather Wisdom: Signs of Rain, ill. Rosemary Woods.

Which book? Asked by the paper which single book he - among 10 other writers - would give as a gift, Keegan answered: If This is a Man by Primo Levi (‘the dignified prose never lingers unnecessarily but goes reluctantly forward, taking us face to face with human nature, with ourselves ... Levi is almost the unwilling witness. The entire book is told in the of a whisper. While I’m sure this book had little or no influence on my own style of writing, I’m certain that, with regard to my thinking, it’s the most influential book I've ever read.’). See Irish Times (5 March 2011), Weekend, p.7.

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