Ireland makes storytellers.
Perhaps it is the land itself, isolated from the rest of Europe, bound by the sea, wet by the passing rains, green fields, blue mountains, so sparsely populated in places that the sheep outnumber the people. Or perhaps the Irish stories are born out of the history of the place — the neglected stepchild of Britain, poverty, famine, resilience and abiding faith. Or perhaps it is the fact that the native Irish language largely gave way to English, but an English bent to the Irish rhythm, the Irish sound.
You hear the Irish sound in the writing of Claire Keegan, whose two collections of short stories have been widely praised and have drawn comparisons to William Trevor and Anton Chekhov. Her dazzling long short story, "Foster," which appeared first in The New Yorker, was so admired that Faber & Faber brought it out in paperback — a treasure at 96 pages.
She has given us two-dozen or so gems altogether: Stories so magical and well-crafted that each feels as lasting and familiar as a favorite fairy tale or a wound to the heart. If I had to choose, I would press upon you Walk the Blue Fields, her latest collection.
There are seven stories to savor. I once heard Keegan read the title story, Walk the Blue Fields, which is about a priest in a small Irish town who is presiding over a wedding. We learn early on that the priest had recently ended a clandestine affair with the bride. During the ceremony and at the reception, he struggles not only with the loss of love but also with the meaning behind his faith and his vows.
For 20 minutes, as Keegan read, she took us with the priest through the sacred and profane rites of a small town, and out into the countryside to walk the blue fields alone and encounter there an unexpected healer. Mesmerized, we fastened on every word.
At the wedding dance, the bride's necklace breaks, scattering the pearls across the polished floor. Here in a moment of intimacy, the priest scoops one up and returns it to her:
When he places the pearl in her hand, she looks into his eyes. There are tears there but she is too proud to blink and let one fall. If she blinked, he would take her hand and take her away from this place. This, at least, is what he tells himself. It's what she once wanted but two people hardly ever want the same thing at any given point in life. It is sometimes the hardest part of being human.
Layer by layer, Keegan crafts these stories out of small details and insight that, like poetry, tell us what we suspect we already knew. We only needed a story to tell us so.
Claire Keegan is the real deal.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason.