Review

Antartica

by Claire Keegan



First, a confession ("bless me father, for…"): My bookshelves
are devoid of contemporary Irish short fiction. There are plenty of
classics --- O'Connor, O'Flaherty, O'Faolain, Joyce, McGahern et
al. --- and a decent presence of contemporary novelists --- Dermot
Bolger, Patrick McCabe, Robert McLiam Wilson, John Banville. But
when it comes to Irish short fiction, I'm sad to say that bell
bottoms were still in fashion (the first time around) when my most
cutting-edge story was penned. Shameful, really. So, I was thrilled
when my editor invited me to review ANTARCTICA, the debut
collection of Ireland's Claire Keegan.

From its very first line ("Every time the happily married woman
went away, she wondered how it would feel to sleep with another
man") I could tell that ANTARCTICA was not my grandfather's short
story collection. It appeared at first almost uniformly bleak, with
the "Antarctica" of the title a desolate, lonely and terrible place
of the soul, inhabited by the wretched and the damned. In the title
story, a woman goes to the city on a quixotic quest for adventure,
only to end up handcuffed to a bed with no apparent prospects for
escape. In "Passport Soup" the mother of a disappeared child,
deranged by anger and grief, serves a horrifying concoction to her
despondent, guilt-ridden husband. Elsewhere, a reconstituted family
struggles to come to terms with the horrors perpetrated by the
original mother and wife. I was initially hard pressed to read more
than one story per sitting and found myself reaching for BRIDGET
JONES'S DIARY to dress my psychic wounds.

But like its continental namesake, Keegan's ANTARCTICA rewards
those who persevere with unexpected visions of haunting beauty and
surprising vitality. Under scrutiny, her inhabitants emerge as far
from wretched --- behind scarred and gnarled exteriors live richly
drawn characters who struggle against all odds to imbue life with
meaning, joy, and love. They occasionally triumph, more often fail,
and most often just muddle through. They are complex, flawed,
riddled with contradiction. They are, in a word, gloriously,
tragically, and eminently human. And they populate a collection
that works on three different levels. First, ANTARCTICA showcases
Keegan's ample skill and versatility at offering stories in first,
third, even second person and featuring characters from a range of
circumstances, in a range of settings. Second, it bears witness to
the universal human struggle to carve out a meaningful existence in
an indifferent, and at times, openly hostile world. Third, it
chronicles Keegan's personal journey from childhood on a Wicklow
farm through youthful study and adventure in Wales and Louisiana to
adult citizenship in modern Ireland --- an "Emerald Tiger" with a
cutting-edge economy, woman President, and legalized divorce.
ANTARCTICA is a rare collection by a rare talent.

The most striking features of Keegan's stories are the tone,
setting, female characters, and composition. The tone is
matter-of-fact and completely devoid of irony. Unusual for an Irish
writer, but surprisingly refreshing. Irony creates emotional
distance, and its absence allowed me to connect powerfully with
Keegan's compelling cast of characters. Not always a comfortable
experience, mind you, particularly in the searing stories mentioned
above; but for the yield of an unusually engaging read, well worth
the discomfort (but keep BRIDGET JONES at hand, just in
case).

The setting alternates between Ireland and the American South. I
initially found this transatlantic shuttling jarring, but warmed to
it as Keegan's skill at conjuring the unique sites, sounds, and
smells of the respective landscapes became evident. By the end, I
actually welcomed the shifts of scenery as a universalizing force
that kept the collection from being too easily pigeonholed as
uniquely and peculiarly "Irish." Keegan's female characters, many
of them middle class, are powerfully realized. Three-dimensional
middle class women are about as rare in Irish fiction as happy
families, and Keegan's cast of characters is a welcome and overdue
contribution to the canon.

Finally, Keegan's composition is simply breathtaking, and I find
myself grasping for analogs beyond the realm of writing. Like a
painter or choreographer, Keegan composes tableaux with layer upon
layer of meaning. She sketches an outline, introduces colors,
props, scenery, and characters, moves them about, nudges them here
and there, and imperceptibly assembles them into a single iconic
and climactic image. Once assembled, the image lingers in the
mind's eye as the story concludes, leaving the reader to ponder,
dissect, analyze, and speculate. In addition to the images that
close the aforementioned "Antarctica" and "Passport Soup," Keegan
gives us a family ferociously and cathartically assaulting an
invasion of bugs; a woman, her husband, and his former lover on a
beach, side-by-side in total silence, as the sun signals the close
of one year and the birth of another; a young man emerging from the
ocean in the black of night to face the next phase of his life; and
a long-suffering woman seizing the wheel for the first time to
slowly drive away from an abusive husband. All short story writers
approximate this process in one way or another --- "an image is
worth a thousand words," as the cliché goes --- but Claire
Keegan, even in her debut collection, demonstrates an aptitude well
beyond her years.

Reading ANTARCTICA, I felt like an active collaborator in a journey
of the mind. Each story proved to be an aerobic, gymnastic exercise
that left me simultaneously spent and hungry for more. To be sure,
Claire Keegan made me work. But I love her for it. And upon
reaching the final phrase of the final story I found myself looking
forward to the novel that her bio assures us she's writing. I can't
ask for much more from a collection of stories and I wholeheartedly
recommend ANTARCTICA to all lovers of substantial short
fiction.

Reviewed by Robin O'Brien on January 20, 2011

Antartica
by Claire Keegan

  • Publication Date: April 27, 2001
  • Genres: Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
  • ISBN-10: 0871137798
  • ISBN-13: 9780871137791