With the publication of exquisite literary gems like Foster and Small Things Like These, Irish writer Claire Keegan’s reputation among American readers is slowly, but steadily, growing. The three elegantly-crafted stories collected in So Late in the Day: Stories of Women and Men will only enhance that increasing regard.
In the title story, Cathal, a Dubliner on the cusp of middle age, faces a lonely weekend as he looks back on the demise of his relationship with Sabine, a French woman he met at a conference two years earlier. What Cathal originally regarded as innocuous and fully justified observations about his lover mutate into profound character flaws and reflections of his misogyny considered through Sabine’s eyes. Ruminating, he recalls a line he read, “about how, if things have not ended badly . . . they have not ended.”
“The Long and Painful Death” is the story of an unnamed female writer who has won a highly competitive two week residency at a cottage on Ireland’s Achill Island once owned by German Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll. Her retreat is interrupted almost immediately by a German literature professor who wants to see the house, and when she hosts him for tea and cake he makes clear his views about her worthiness as even a temporary occupant of Böll‘s former home.
The subtle air of menace that hovers over “The Long and Painful Death” emerges full-blown in “Antarctica,” which was originally published as the title story in Keegan’s debut collection. In this disturbing final story, a “happily married” woman uses the excuse of a Christmas shopping trip to Somerset, England, to find out what it’s like to sleep with another man. It doesn’t take her long to connect with a suitable candidate at a pub near her hotel. At first, their mutually fulfilling sex exceeds her modest expectations, but the story’s chilling final pages are worthy of a tale fashioned by Stephen King.
In a book that barely exceeds 100 pages, it’s tempting to race to the end. But Keegan’s lapidary style almost demands that her work be consumed slowly, sentence by lovely sentence, as when a character feels “the tail end of a dream—a feeling, like silk—disappearing,” or when a hen’s plumage appears “as though she’d powdered herself before she’d stepped out of the house.” These stories invite rereading to appreciate how a skilled author can construct character and build narrative tension with unaffected grace.