Monday, 7 May 2012

Night of the Quicken Trees, Claire Keegan

So, Claire Keegan's second collection of short stories Walk the Blue Fields has been my companion for the past two weeks, during my holiday to Croatia and Montenegro, on the plane and on my return home.   

It's a second hand copy. I went into Oxfam books, thinking I might pick up a couple of books to read while I was away. I skimmed my eyes across the shelves, looking at titles and spines, and this very unassuming book drew me in. A slim, neat book in amongst all these fat and worn second-hand novels. Plain-looking from the spine. But the title grabbed me (and the faber ff quietly sitting at the bottom of the spine). So, I pulled it out and smiled to myself when I saw it was short fiction. Yes, it was mine.

It settled in my suitcase and I started reading it on a very rainy day in Perast in Montenegro. A quiet town, off season, and not quite used to so much rain. I could see the hills opposite through the terrace doors and mist over the bay. I opened the book and started reading the first story and it felt a little like holding my breath. I stared out of the window for a long time when I finished reading it, as all the details soaked in. I thought, I need to read these stories slowly, one at a time. That first story, in fact all of them, so absorbing, I wanted to fully immerse myself and make sure I felt every word.

So, I read more outside a restaurant on a terrace that jutted out over the bay on a windy morning where I needed a second cardigan, but I couldn't put the book down until I'd completed the next story. And I read more inside the same restaurant while I lingered over two cups of green tea and waited for the waiter (a man I spent four days with) to stop at my table and smile or share a few words. And I read more in the early hours one morning when I couldn't sleep and the rain lashed down and although my body felt drained, my mind felt so awake.

Most of the stories are set in Ireland and so I was staying in a strange country, reading about another unfamiliar country. But the characters and the geography began to seem very familiar in my mind, so much so that it was like living three different lives at once. The lives of my characters, my own brief life away from home for that short holiday, and my ongoing life, the one it was good to escape from for a while.

Yesterday, I finished the collection. I stayed in bed late into the morning and read the final story Night of the Quicken Trees. A 40-page story inspired by an Irish fairy tale called 'Feet Water' and containing some elements of a fairy tale, but so grounded and earthy and rich in detail, it felt as if I could be Margaret in this story.

The two main characters are so fiercely individual and strange. I am in awe at how real their characters have been developed by the writer. I could see them so vividly in my mind as I read, but I also felt as if I could step inside their shoes and feel everything they felt, even outside of the words written in the story. They are isolated through choice, loving the solitary confines of their lives in two adjoining cottages. Margaret is not yet forty, pisses outside because 'she wanted to pass water on every blade of grass around her house, she could not say why.' She lost a child from cot death, she can heal people, and she loves to lie on the cliff and look over the edge. Stack who lives next door is nearly fifty. He shares his bed with his goat, Josephine, cuts turf from the bogs, loves fried eel. They are peculiar people, stubborn in their own ways, affected by the past, and have been brought to where they are by circumstance.

I love the way we see each character through their own eyes and through each other's eyes. So Stack sees Margaret like this: 'And now a woman was living next door, setting fire to the priests good furniture, walking the roads with her hair all tangled same as she didn't own a comb.'

I loved every detail about how Margaret settles into her new house. It's as if she is exorcising the past by staying there. I won't say why. The story needs to be enjoyed to find this out.

I found myself connected to the story more and more as it progressed, knowing there was sadness written into every word,  not in a pitying way, but an everyday tragic way: how solitariness can become a habit and familiar, and the strangeness of other people is just comparative to our own strangeness, and how loss can slowly eat away at people without them even knowing it.

The connection formed between Stack and Margaret is beautifully found and explored in the story, without cliches or sentiment and how it progresses is not what I expected, and at the same time everything that I should have expected.

And maybe there are elements of the story that reflect my own life, or mean a lot to me right now, because I've been thinking a lot about isolation and connection, about getting older and being alone and relationships, and this story explores all these things. And I feel there is a lot about me that is fiercely strange and this story gives no apologies for the strangeness of these characters, in fact it celebrates it.

It is a story filled with dreams and superstitions. It is poetic and dirty and beautiful and filled with tenderness and sadness. I don't think I will ever forget it.

I will leave you with these lines.

Margaret came home, pulled the priest's bed out of the room, took it down to the field, and doused it with paraffin. It was slow to burn at first, then blazed and turned into a bed of ash. She went inside and began to knock a hole in the wall between the two houses. Stack stood in this own house at the dividing wall and felt afraid. When that wall came down nothing would ever be the same. He could feel the grief of Margaret Flusk. Her grief was beyond comparison. And her strength; Margaret has the strength of two men. Weren't her legs and arms the same as in his dream? He stood there and hear the plaster loosen, then the stones.


Anonymous said...

I love the sound of that book Annie and you write about it so beautifully connecting with your own life experiences...Eileen x

Megan said...

Wow. Sounds amazing. Here's to being fiercely strange, Annie xx

Alice Zorn said...

"...and how it progresses is not what I expected, and at the same time everything that I should have expected." Isn't this how a short story--all fiction?--works best?
Your words make me want to read this collection.