May 2008

Cynthia Reeser


Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan

In the Ireland of Claire Keegan’s Walk the Blue Fields, women are strong and independent, reality is harsh and money scarce. Containing none of the cynicism of a Flann O’Brien novel, the storylines occasionally veer toward the mythic and collide with contemporary Irish life. But Keegan’s characters, more so than myth, are what resonate.
With more than a hint of the narrative style of Anton Chekhov, the pacing of Keegan’s stories is acute (nothing ever happens too soon, but at just the right moment) and the narrative voice is usually somewhat distant. The effect of this device lends objectivity, and subsequently authenticity, to the stories.
“Dark Horses” follows Brady, who has the tendency for drink, through a narrative loaded with ominous overtones that fall just shy of delivery. The story opens with imagery of the dark horse -- a wild, untamable thing loaded with dangerously powerful sexual metaphor -- but continues with the story of Brady, whose trouble is simple: he wants his lady back. Times are hard and it does not do to be lonely, and he can only dream her dark horse back into his field, grazing. While the metaphor packs a punch, the story both ends and begins with a lonely man’s dreams, never quite getting him anywhere; he experiences neither an epiphany nor a quiet revolution, and nothing for him changes here. However, when it comes to characterization, there is more to it than immediately obvious, and the tale is one that rewards multiple readings for the finely wrought depictions of Irish life it offers up.
The sense of myth in the collection flows from Irish lore and storytelling traditions, and is the font from which many of Keegan’s stories spring. “Night of the Quicken Trees” is preceded by an excerpt from an Irish fairy tale revolving around a superstitious tradition. Appropriately, heavy allusions are made throughout to traditional superstition and beliefs, but later, two sudden pop culture references unexpectedly ground the tale to a time not indicated until this point; it apparently takes place in modern times, but the feel has been for decades earlier.
Aside from this sticky point, Keegan employs throughout, strong, capable women who endure the hardships and desperation the finicky land yields and somehow manage, though not always admirably, to come out if not ahead, then at least getting their own way. A prime example is in “The Long and Painful Death,” a possibly self-serving story in which an author takes her revenge by writing an unflattering narrative about someone she considers an enemy.
There are times when it seems as though Keegan creates characters just to spite them, as in “The Long and Painful Death” and “Surrender.” The sergeant and deputy in the latter work are condescendingly presented as childish figures. The sergeant has a limited, childlike view of women: “His knowledge of women swept across his mind. He tried to think of each one separately -- of what she said or how, exactly, she was dressed -- but they were not so much mixed up in his mind as all the one.” While it makes for a bit of humor, one wonders about the motives behind this man’s misogyny born of naïveté.
Keegan is promising as a storyteller, particularly when she leaves herself out of the equation. In her case, emotionally distant and detached narrators work in her favor; sometimes less is more. Her sense of pacing, narrative flow and characterization propel the sharp edges of her Ireland into solid, memorable storytelling.

Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan
Black Cat
ISBN: 0802170498
169 pages