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.

A time of violence: Luke Francis Beirne, Blacklion

Luke Francis Beirne, Blacklion. Baraka Books, Montréal, 2023

This edgy thriller by Irish-Canadian author Luke Francis Beirne has some similar elements to his previous novel Foxhunt, also published by Baraka Books. In my post on it just over a year ago I likened it to early le Carré (link HERE). Blacklion in some ways resembles some of Graham Greene’s fiction – in fact, Part 1 of this novel is called ‘The Quiet American’.

The setting is early seventies Ireland. The Troubles are at their height in Ultster. Ray, of South Boston American-Irish stock, has been dispatched by the CIA to infiltrate the IRA in the Republic with a view to re-establishing a lost line of gun-running. The aim is not so much as to support the Republican cause, as to prevent the Soviets from stepping in and further unbalancing the power dynamic in the Cold War.

Ray, as a conspicuous newcomer and outsider, has to win the trust of a deeply suspicious set of people (associated with the previous gun-running operation out of gangland South Boston) and IRA splinter-group volunteers. His loyalty is tested several times, each time in more dangerous and hair-raising ways. More than once his life is threatened, and he has to muffle his moral instincts when other people’s lives are on the line: to step in and prevent bloodshed he would jeopardise his cover.

There’s a sub-genre of thriller to which Blacklion makes a worthy contribution (a recent series of the hit UK tv series ‘Line of Duty’ is an example): the undercover cop/agent who has to compromise his human principles in order to fulfil his mission. This includes becoming involved in a sexual relationship with one of the female activists. The tension mounts when Ray’s initial guilt at deceiving Aoife turns into another kind of unease as he finds himself falling in love with her.

The plot is fairly standard for this kind of set-up, with increasingly nail-biting operations involving assassinations of rivals or suspected ‘rats’, and firefights with the British army that culminate in a dangerous operation in the town of Blacklion, just over the border in Ulster.

There’s less obvious political ideology in this novel than there was in 50s-set Foxhunt. There the conflicting and equally extreme positions of the Soviets and conservative Americans were foregrounded. In Blacklion, Beirne is more interested in what drives politically motivated activists to such extremes of violence, while also exploring the even more complex morality of the undercover agent. The validity of Ray’s actions and mission is never overtly judged; the narrative simply presents what happens and wisely leaves the readers to form their own views.

The fact that he is haunted by flashbacks of his previous illegal covert operation in Laos (during the Vietnam war) simply shows the price Ray pays for doing the job he does. In a way he comes to grudgingly admire the commitment to a cause demonstrated by the people he deceives, and to question his role and the murkier ‘cause’, if it could be called that, on behalf of which he is operating. As Yeats put it, the falcon cannot hear the falconer.

One minor cavil. The prose is terse, unadorned – I suppose it could be called ‘hard-boiled’ in a Hemingway/Chandler way. But I was a little put off by one aspect of this style; there are times when the ‘this happened then this’ approach becomes intrusive. Let me try and explain with a fairly random example.

‘Ray walked around the car and opened the passenger side door. He climbed inside and shut it. Aoife turned the key in the ignition and started the car. The headlights played across the grass before the sand…’

Why not the even more pared-back, ‘They climbed into the car and drove off’…? I don’t mind that minimalist prose style, but moments like this grated a bit with me. But that’s a minor point. I enjoyed this novel a lot. It’s an exciting, compelling read, but also thought-provoking. Morality and character are as much in play as politics or action.

My thanks to Baraka Books for the ARC.