Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 224 pages; 2000.
Reviewing a collection of short stories is always fraught with difficulty. Should you review every story? Just concentrate on one? Or give an overall flavour of the book as a whole?
If I was to concentrate on the latter, I’d say that Claire Keegan’s Antarctica, first published in 1999, is an extraordinary collection of 15 stories, beautifully consistent throughout and with not a dud one in the mix.
It is without a doubt the best collection I’ve ever read. That’s probably not saying much, because I’m not exactly a connoisseur of short story collections and have only read a handful in my time. But even comparing this to Simon Van Booy’s Love Begins in Winter, which I read, reviewed and loved last year, Antarctica had a stronger impact on me.
Her prose style is typically Irish, by which I mean it’s sparse, rhythmic and unflinching. But her story-telling is as rich as any novel. Keegan somehow manages to make the people in her short stories fully alive and authentic. You identify with them, care for them — and all this happens within the first paragraph or two.
The opening paragraph of Where the Water’s Deepest is a good example:
The au pair sits on the edge of the pier this night, fishing. Beside her, cheese she salvaged from the salad bowl at dinner, her leather sandals. She removes the band from her ponytail and shakes her hair loose. Leftover smells of cooking and bath suds drift down from the house through the trees. She slides a cube of cheese on to the hook and casts. Her wrist is good. The line makes a perfect arc in the air, drops down and vanishes. Slowly she reels it towards her, where the water’s deepest. She’s caught a nice perch this way before.
And while the stories are essentially tales of ordinary people, usually living in rural Ireland, with one or two in the southern states of America (I believe Keegan was briefly based in Louisiana at one point), something extraordinary tends to happen to them.
There’s not much happiness in these stories though. Familial relationships are at best strained. There’s a lot of women struggling with their lot. There’s a lot of thwarted love, too. But nothing ever feels false or melodramatic. There’s a quiet, haunting quality to every tale, with every little (and big) drama told in the same calm, understated manner.
I was particularly taken with the opening story, Antarctica, about a happily married woman who “wondered how it would feel to sleep with another man”. When she goes away for a weekend by herself on the pretense of Christmas shopping, she meets a man — “red complexion, a gold chain dangling inside a Hawaiian print shirt, mud-coloured hair” — in a hotel bar and proceeds to go to bed with him.
There’s a delicious, illicit feel to the story, and even though you know the unnamed “wild middle-class” woman is behaving wrongly you kind of want to cheer her on. And while the one-night stand turns out to be a roaring success — “‘You’re a very generous lover,’ she said afterwards, passing him the cigarette. ‘You’re very generous full stop'” — there’s a price to pay for transgressing the codes of marriage.
It’s a chilling tale and it’s told in just 19 pages. Other writers could spin an entire 400-page novel out of the same plot and probably not achieve the same level of creepiness. I read it and knew I was in the hands of an accomplished, intelligent short story writer — and I suddenly wanted to eat up the entire book as fast as my eyes would let me. Alas, I rationed myself to one story a night. If that’s not a good sign, I don’t know what is.
Antarctica won the Rooney Prize for Literature in 2000.