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.

10 thoughts on “Claire Keegan, So Late in the Day

  1. Hello Simon! Looking forward to reading this…it sounds outstanding. I know the amount of discernment you apply to your critique, and this posting is high praise indeed. Cheers to you and yours! Maureen

  2. I liked Small Things Like these, but another story about the failings of men who didn’t get the memo about gender equity doesn’t interest me.
    IMO it would have been a much more interesting idea to present the collision of attitudes and values at the time when they were changing. Women were demanding power and men were having to give it up without either of them really knowing how that was going to pan out. Though now our sympathies are with the women who fought that battle (and I was one of them), we can also see (I hope) that it was hard for both.

    • Good point, Lisa, but I’m not sure the struggle is over. True, the collision of values was far more apparent a few decades ago, but I think Keegan has a point in showing how unconscious misogyny persists.

  3. A really thoughtful review, Simon. I’ve seen quite a bit of coverage about this one, and it does sound like a really interesting book with much to say and very well done. I’ve not read Keegan but she’s obviously quite a powerful author.

  4. Like you I was worried this would just be hanging on to the Keegan band wagon at the moment, since Foster and STLT have made such a deserving ripple. But you’ve convinced me and I shall give this a read, thank you!

  5. I’m a bit cross about the price of the thing so I’m holding out for a charity shop buy or a proper collected short stories / short fiction type volume (there have been a few volumes with overlapping sets of stories, I know, too). I loved Small Things and do want to read this.

    • It is a bit of a stretch, to charge £9 for a short story. Ok, it’s nicely presented in hardback, but even so… I’m sure copies will start showing up second hand soon. Worth waiting for.

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