So Late in the Day: Stories of Women and Men
“What makes Keegan’s writing so rich is her economy of words and her ability to create vivid and powerful scenes while maintaining a simple style.”
So Late in the Day: Stories of Women and Men is the latest collection of short stories from Claire Keegan, the talented Irish writer who has been winning literary prizes since the late 1990s. There are three stories in the collection, two of which have been published in previous volumes. Together they represent work from three different time periods. “Antarctica” was published in 1999 in Keegan’s collection of the same title. “The Long and Painful Death” appeared in Walk the Blue Fields published in 2007. The title story of this volume was published in The New Yorker in 2022. The previous two collections won major literary awards, as have nearly all of her published work.
For the most part, Keegan’s stories are set in Irish Villages or feature central characters from village life. Like many of her stories So Late in the Day, as suggested in the subtitle, is centered on relationships between men and women, individually and/or collectively. Also, major institutions of Irish society and culture come in for some analysis and critique. These are the themes that run through the span of Keegan’s literary output.
Keegan is a master of the short story form, which is not to say that her longer stories are lacking. What makes Keegan’s writing so rich is her economy of words and her ability to create vivid and powerful scenes while maintaining a simple style. In an interview in 2021 in The Guardian, when asked about length in her writing, she said: “I think something needs to be as long as it needs to be.”
These three short stories illustrate the style and quality of Keegan’s prose. The opening paragraph of “Antarctica” in five of its sentences sets the scene and piques the interest: “Every time the happily married woman went away, she wondered how it would feel to sleep with another man. That weekend she was determined to find out. It was December; she felt a certain closing on another year. She wanted to do this before she got too old. She was sure she would be disappointed.”
Although the story moves forward in what in someone else’s hands might develop into a tired cliché, Keegan avoids that trap. It is the detail of the settings and the evocation of character that carry the story, not the unveiling of the action.
In “The Long and Painful Death,” there is the female storyteller, identified only as she or her, and a man referred to as The German. No names are used. She arrives by car at her destination in the middle of the night: “On she drove, along a dark strip of road where, on either side, tall rhododendron hedges had gone wild and out of bloom. Not one person did she see, not one lighted window, just sleeping, black-legged sheep and later a fox standing fearsome and still in the headlights.”
Her destination is the cottage where she won a grant for two weeks residency to spend her time writing, quietly and without interruption. The German will upset that plan, and their encounter is at the center of this story. He clearly has issues, and she resents the intrusion, even though it is a simple request to see the inside of this historic literary venue.
“The Long and Painful Death” is woven around a Chekhov short story that she is reading on the day of The German’s visit. It not only provides for a good narrative device, but serves to reveal her views on men, and particularly Irish men.
It seems as if the Chekhov story became an inspiration or muse for Keegan’s “So Late in the Day,” or at least one element of it. This third short story, the most recent in creation and the first one in this collection, centers on a young man, Cathal, and a young woman, Sabine, who meet at a conference. They discover that they work near one another in Dublin, and they begin to meet after hours, initially for drinks. Their relationship grows slowly and haltingly. They are not a natural match. The growth and subsequent collapse of the relationship drives the story.
As in most of Keegan’s writing, her descriptive powers shine. She also has a marvelous ability of introducing, but not dwelling on, small gestures, telling words, and brief self-induced awkward moments that pass quickly, seemingly without significance. Cathal’s social skills are lacking, and Sabine’s language skills irritate him.
One of the overriding themes of these three stories is the state of relationships between men and women. The men are obtuse and are certain of their superiority over women, which these stories expose as delusional. The relationships, even when seemingly smooth, are fraught. It seems that this issue may not be confined to the Emerald Isle.
It is difficult to describe, unless you happen to be Claire Keegan, just how adept she is in finding a minimum of words with maximum clout housed in simple sentences. It is said of Mozart that his music is simple, the next note flowing inevitable from the previous note, until it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, it marks the brilliance of his music. That seems to be an apt analogy for Keegan’s words, sentences, and paragraphs.