Faber and Faber £9.99, pp209
In 1948, Seán O'Faoláin published a meticulous study of the craft of the short story in which he agonised over the many difficulties of getting it absolutely right.
'There is something very affecting about a young writer's first book,' he mentioned. 'The readers of such books always tend to over-praise them. What the critic rarely says is that the very source of the charm of such books is also their weakness - that untutored wonder!' True, his own first stories are woeful. And he himself frothed at the mouth at Neil Jordan's debut, Night in Tunisia, which was a mistake.
Still, here really is an exciting first book of deliberate, contemplative short stories. In Claire Keegan's first titular story, 'Antarctica', a married woman travels to town, over-confident of her equality and bent on adultery. She picks up a poor, orphaned bloke and, starry-eyed, relishes delightful hours with him before winding up handcuffed in his flat. The collection ends with a distracted mother treating her husband to a bizarre broth of their missing daughter's photographs. Murders, betrayals, orphaned children, madness, suicides are just some of the themes in between.
Confidently rooted in today's global provincialism, the stories explore mostly rural family life, whether in Ireland, the US or Britain. In several, an irrepressible, imaginative girl looks with curiosity on the range of human nature and the quirks of fate. There are a few too many Virgin Marys, Sister Emmanuels and 'Glory Be's for my taste. But otherwise, life rarely grows over-familiar, what with troublesome knitting machines, patched wellingtons, artificial hips, traumatised chickens and bewildered sheep in the back seat of the family Volkswagen.
Keegan writes other stories in an American idiom which sounds natural and faultless to my ear. Whatever the region, she offers whole swaths of experience of it: its offbeat characters, crackling dialogue, rituals, secrets, seasons. She has Eudora Welty's sense of place where feelings are bound up.
The sure narrative pace of Joyce Carol Oates, Alison Lurie or Rose Tremain is matched here in Keegan's most conventional short stories. In 'The Ginger Rogers Sermon', a spontaneous schoolgirl seduces her father's farm hand, Slapper Jim, and alone remains innocent of the consequences while the family dance a jig in the parlour. Her jaunty voice produces poignant effect. This and 'Men and Women', a colourful, melancholy study of family idiocy, must be among the finest contemporary stories written recently in English.
Other pieces luxuriate in stasis and their elements hang loose. A girl merely decides to jilt a guy. Two sisters recall being dandled on the knees of the serial killer Fred West, and their postman delivers fish and hanky-panky. The aesthetic here is always the appeal to the palpability of language itself. Suggestions of Heaney and Frost travel through the prose. Keegan might be said to subvert a conventional male expectation of linear logic extended to climax.
But there is no modernist alienation, no women's stance. Post-feminist women spontaneously play traditional roles one moment, dominate the next and the femininity is as fresh, unselfconscious and natural as the voice is original.