Time on To-Read List: 1 year
Reason for Still Lurking on To-Read List: Cliche Avoidance.
Motivation for Finally Picking It Up: Christmas gift. It serendipitiously fit into my carry on for our trip over New Year’s, too!
This one’s been lurking on my virtual to-read since not long after it came out and a few glowing reviews made the rounds of my particular little literary-fiction loving circle of bookfriends. But this was another one that wasn’t quite flash enough to make it to the top of the pile- until someone actually scoured my to-read list, of hundreds of books, and picked this out as a Christmas gift for me.
I shied away from it at first- feeling like I had to give some sort of resistance to the cliche of the girl of Irish descent getting obsessed with a book about Ireland. I mean, it’s about Ireland. It’s got priests and silent men and mist and fog and moors and everything you’d think it would have. I gotta tell you though, this person knew me well. This book was so good. I gave up caring pretty quickly why I loved it so much.
And you know, as much as my instinct is sometimes to resist it- there is usually a reason for what we love, whether we inherit that love or develop it ourselves. I found that out when I read Orkney last year- no matter what I do, there are certain things that are just… magic to me. Ireland, when properly presented and shorn of leprechauns, insulting depictions of fighting and drunkenness, is one of those otherworldly things to me- something that induces that quiet mood in me where everything is still and there’s a chance I can grab at something that feels true and life changing, if only for a minute. Claire Keegan’s Walk the Blue Fields, which is a collection of five short(er) stories set in Ireland, is that otherworldly place. These stories center around five very different people, with very different lives- the first, a girl about to become an emigre, the second (the title story) centers on a priest attending a wedding, the third on a farmer scraping out a living in the countryside, the fourth on a forester and his decayed marriage, the fifth on a writer taking up temporary residence in Heinrich Boll’s home and a mysterious visitor, and the last about an isolated man and an isolated woman and some magic that may or may not be present in their homes. These stories take place over the course of everything from just one hour of a morning to the passing of years. Unlike the trend of many short story collections, these stories are not linked, we do not see a character in one turning up in another. But they may as well be. Each one of these stories is cut from the same fabric.
These characters do not know each other, but they might as well. Even the fish-out-of-water writer is not so far off from the others. They are all people who are deeply lonely, for one reason or another. It’s nothing magical. In fact, it’s probably quiet prosaically rooted in a lack of economic or social opportunity that limited them into the boxes in which they find themselves, boxes that are filled with little individual pools of grief that mire them down even farther. Even the characters who exhibit some freedom (our emigre at the beginning, the writer voluntarily seeking the isolation of Boll’s house), or are trying to “escape” are clearly affected by it. What started as something prosaic, a series of understandable individual choices based on what seemed best at the time, is now the web that binds together society- almost everyone has had to make similar choices, and finds themselves in the same surreally repeating, monotonous circumstances where opportunities are few and too soon squandered. The only way to start over is to leave, and even then, many Irish Americans can attest that you never really leave, even if you were never there to begin with- it takes generations for it to really dissipate (I’m fifth generation, and I can tell you that intense nostalgia and love for Irish wakes, Irish symbolism and religion, Irish music and most of all Irish community was still passed down to me as the most essential part of my heritage. I was taken to Irish cultural festivals, to see Irish music and Irish dance since before I can remember. It completely erased and overwhelmed any and all other cultural claims on my past. Even the Italians didn’t have a chance.)
It makes sense to me that, after awhile, magical realism should begin to seep into one’s understanding of a country like Ireland. It isn’t so different, socioeconomically, or in its history of oppression, de-naming, de-personizing and mental colonization than many of the Latin American countries where magical realism first surfaced as a style. What would you turn your mind to in any situation of isolation, fear, doubt and shame? What would you do with your imagination, if you weren’t the sort prone to black despair (and there are enough of those here), wouldn’t you look around you and try to find ultimate meaning in the only things and only people you’ll ever see? Especially if what you see around you is constant stunning, deeply unlikely beauty, beauty that has no buisness surrounding the history of poverty and monotony and disappointed hopes that you’ve got floating around in your head. When you were done with pure rage… what might you start to ascribe to the landscape around you? To the people? How easy would it be for the boundaries to start to shift between hard fact and legend?
Things get fuzzy if you stare at them for long enough. They can turn into legends and possible witches (like in the Night of the Quicken Trees), they can become ghosts that dance at a fireside in a tale well enough told (as in The Forrester’s Daughter), a mysterious, vanishing visitor who offers just the inspiration you need (as in The Long and Painful Death). You can start to buy into it all- everything you were ever told as a child. And then you not only buy into it, you become a part of perpetuating it. You are the legend, you make it real.
More than all of that- nearly all of these stories, as particular and peculiar as they are to their circumstances, feel like they are set entirely in my inner quiet place. Claire Keegan’s whispered, unassuming prose takes me there easily, in a fashion that’s as unshowy as it is entirely effective:
“As she wrote, the sun rose. It was a fine thing to sit there describing a sick man and to feel the sun rising. If it again, at some later point, filled her with a new longing for sleep she fought against it and kept on, working with her head down, concentrating on the pages. Already, she had made the incision in place and time, and infused it with a climate, and longing. There was earth and fire and water on these pages; there was a man and a woman and human loneliness. Something about the work was elemental and plain.”
Emphasis mine because I also think that this is the perfect description of what Keegan has accomplished here. “Infusing it with a climate, and longing.” That’s what this is. While I loved something about each one of these stories, I think my favorite was the title story, Walk the Blue Fields. It’s a story of a priest and something he desperately loves that he’s being forced to watch being taken away from him in a slow and agonizing fashion- no matter that he chose something else over having it and had apparently made his peace with what that decision meant. Nonetheless, it gets the closest to getting at what this whole thing is about:
“The priest crosses the street and walks up the avenue to the hotel. This was once the Protestant’s estate. On either side, the trees are tall and here the wind is strangely human. A tender speech is combing through the willows. In a bare whisper, the elms lean. Something about the place conjures up ancients: the hound, the spear, the spinning wheel. There’s pleasure to be had in history. What’s recent is another matter and more painful to recall.”
So this St. Patrick’s Day- consider giving your time to Ireland in a non-traditional way. Let’s eschew vomiting and hectoring each other about wearing green and instead consider reading one of the most sensitive, careful portrayals of the country that I’ve ever read. It may have it’s struggles, but Ireland is still, to this day, the most beautiful country I’ve ever been to. At it’s best, it’s a peak experience, it’s something indescribable, not a quaint little jig with fiddles. It deserves better. Claire Keegan is one of the only authors I’ve seen (at least one of the only authors who has significantly made it to the US market) to approach a reflection of the essential beauty that I remember of that visit. I can guarantee I’ll be back for more visits to her Ireland.