Claire Keegan, So Late in the Day

Claire Keegan, So Late in the Day. Faber, 2023

 Earlier this year I posted on Irish author Claire Keegan’s recent novella, Small Things Like These, describing it as ‘intense and profoundly moving’. I’d say the same for So Late in the Day, but in a different way (link HERE). The earlier book is set in the 80s when the Magdalene laundries were still posing as refuges for young women who were classed as sinful or undesirable by their families, but which were far more sinister and dangerous places run by nuns with retribution and exploitation as their prime objective, rather than the charity and loving kindness that was their ostensible mission. This new publication is a short story – less than 50 pages long – and is set in the present, and deals with the end of a relationship.

I approached this with a bit of scepticism, thinking that Faber were taking advantage of the buzz that’s grown around Keegan’s work over the last few years by publishing in hardback something so slight and brief. My suspicions dissipated rapidly.

Very little happens. Cathal finishes work and takes the bus home to spend the weekend alone. As the lonely hours pass, we are given access to his thoughts and preoccupations. It becomes apparent that this was to be his wedding weekend, but his fiancée, Sabine, has called it off ‘so late in the day’. We gradually learn why.

The brilliance of Keegan’s fiction is that so much is shown in very economical, beautifully written prose, with no extraneous explanation or analysis. She trusts her reader to tune in to the subtle implications of what Cathal thinks – or, quite often, pushes away from his thoughts, as he finds it too much like hard work to establish why Sabine behaved as she did, or found his behaviour unacceptable.

He emerges as an emotionally frigid, ungenerous young man. Through a sequence of past events that are sketched out through free indirect thought and oblique, dispassionately narrated scenes, we see how Cathal’s lack of emotional acuity, his tendency to meanness (in the sense of tight-fistedness as well as behaviourally), gradually wore down Sabine’s capacity to turn a blind eye to his shortcomings.

This bland summary doesn’t do justice to the superb poise and restraint with which Keegan pieces together this portrait of a man adrift. He has a vague sense that something is amiss in his character, but finds it easier to fall back on misogynistic, macho attitudes and evasions. To attempt to analyse and explore why this apparently loving relationship was wrecked would require a kind of emotional courage, insight and honesty that Cathal lacks.

Strangely, because perhaps of a few slyly positioned hints about his upbringing, I felt a small twinge of sympathy for him. As a man myself, I guiltily recognised some of those stereotypically dismissive masculine tendencies in myself and many of the men I know.

I’ve found it very hard to say much about this story without giving too much away. It depends almost entirely on its quiet accretion of small details that come together to form an immensely powerful profile of a human being who’s almost lost sight of his humanity. Here’s one example of Keegan’s method; this is Cathal reflecting on an event where his demeanour caused friction between the lovers:

That was part of the trouble: the fact that she would not listen, and wanted to do a good half of things her own way.

It’s no surprise when soon after she moves in with him, Sabine tells him what a female colleague of his had told her over a bottle of Chablis:

A good half of [Irish] men your age just want us to shut up and give you what you want, that you’re spoilt and turn contemptible when things don’t go your way.

When Sabine adds some of the shockingly vile words such men use about women, he dismisses them, saying:

‘Ah, that’s just the way we talk here…It’s just an Irish thing and means nothing half the time.’

That’s the second time the use of ‘half’ reveals all.

In the same post earlier this year where I wrote about Keegan’s Small Things, I also commented on Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait. I’d say that Keegan’s 47 pages represent a more sustaining, artistically successful account of the human condition than O’Farrell’s 438 sprawling pages.

Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl

Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl (Fig Tree, 2018)

Mrs TD heard this non-fiction book being discussed enthusiastically on the BBC Radio 4 programme A Good Read. Our excellent Cornwall Libraries provided this hardback copy within days of my reserving it.

We recently travelled through the Netherlands, which brought back memories of visiting Amsterdam over the years: the Anne Frank House, the Jewish Museum and quarter. I thought I knew a fair bit about the murderous treatment of Jewish people under the German occupation, and the ways some Dutch residents risked their lives to harbour some of them in their own homes. This book changed this perception.

Bart van Es was born in the Netherlands and is a professor of English literature at Oxford University. The Cut Out Girl is his account of tracing the role played by his Dutch grandparents (and many others) in hiding a young Jewish girl during WWII. She’s only eight years old when her parents make the agonising decision to send her to live with a family of strangers before they are sent to the death camps. Van Es tracks her down – she’s now a woman in her eighties, living in Amsterdam – and gets to know and interview her during several visits to her home.

At first Lien (short for Hesseline) is a little reluctant to divulge the emotional side of her story to her ‘nephew’ (as he’s pleased to be called when she introduces him to a visitor: after all, she isn’t a blood relative, even though she came to call the van Es adults – Bart’s grandparents who sheltered — her as mother and father). He uses his academic research skills to fill out the details in the basic narrative she gives him.

Much of this factual part is reasonably familiar and predictable to those of us brought up on stories like Anne Frank’s. After staying in Dordrecht (which we visited on our recent trip) with the van Es family, Lien was moved several times as her hiding places were compromised. She had to stay for weeks and months on end confined to the house, often in a secret concealed room, not even able to look out of a window for fear of being discovered or betrayed. No school, no friends.

Not surprisingly, deprived of almost all contact with other people, she became anxious, emotionally volatile and vulnerable. And now we come to the part of the book that I hadn’t expected, and this is its most powerful and shocking element. Some of those who risked everything to shelter her did not treat her kindly. In one house she was made to fill the role of a housemaid, and shown little or no affection. She experienced even worse treatment in other houses.

We hear about Lien’s life after the war, until the time the author got to know her and elicit her story. She was clearly psychologically damaged by the terrible times she’d lived through. All of her family were murdered by the Nazis. It was only in the previous few years, just before Bart van Es tracked her down, that she’d managed to achieve some kind of peace.

The other key feature of Lien’s sad life was that she had become estranged from the van Es ‘parents’ who had harboured her – hence one sense of the ambiguous title of the book. Lien was ‘cut out’ from her foster family, as well as from her own. The reason for this rift is only revealed towards the end of the book, and it’s another indication of how much more complicated the situation was in the relations between the persecuted Jewish population in wartime Holland and the rest of the Dutch people – and it’s a poignant indication of how deeply flawed we human beings are – even when we seem to be acting nobly.

This is a deeply moving, often disturbing account of what happened in Holland during the war. I hadn’t realised that the Dutch Jewish population suffered so terribly: their wartime death rate of 80% was more than double that in any other western country, including France, Belgium, Italy, or even Austria and Germany. Of 18,000 Jews who lived in Lien’s home town of the Hague in 1940, only 2,000 survived. I shared van Es’s response to these facts: ‘For me, brought up on the myth of Dutch resistance, this comes as a shock,’ he writes. There were various demographic and social reasons for this, but it was also a result of the ‘active participation of Dutch citizens – who did the work of informing on neighbours, arrest, imprisonment and deportation.’ The Dutch authorities delivered 107,000 ‘full Jews’ to their German masters. These people were then sent to the death camps in the east.

Another important feature emerges. When he first arrives to interview Lien, he’s aware that a group of youngsters of ‘north African appearance’ are eyeing him with suspicion. He’s aware that his presence, and the nature of what he’s investigating, are not received with as positive a response as that of the white European Dutch. He points out that since the seventies the Netherlands has been a ‘country of immigration’. One fifth of its population were born outside its borders, or are descendants of these immigrants. Integration has been only ‘moderately successful’.

These are sobering insights. Van Es refers to the far-right politician Geert Wilders’ party getting 15% of the vote in local elections at the time of this book’s publication in 2018. Just last month his anti-Islam PVV party, with its extreme policies on immigration, and advocacy of banning the Qu’ran and mosques, became the largest party in the national elections. Wilders looks likely to lead the next Dutch government. This in a country often seen as an exemplar of liberal views and tolerance of diversity.

My own government seems intent on going down a similar route of ‘taking back control’ of its borders (as they mendaciously boasted during the Brexit campaign), as it redoubles its inhumane (and probably illegal) efforts to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, which it disingenuously insists is a safe and reasonable place for desperate people, many of them persecuted and endangered in their home countries, to be dumped so that we don’t have to see them in our towns and villages. I’m in despair at the ways in which democratic institutions are being rejected, and the world seems to be headed towards the kind of environment that enabled the Nazis to perpetrate the horrors of WWII on people like Lien.