Dilettante's Diary
MARCH 25, 2022
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Reviewed here: So Late in the Day; One Sun Only; A Shooting in Rathreedane (Short Fiction)

So Late in the Day (Short fiction) by Claire Keegan, The New Yorker, February 28,2022 and One Sun Only (Short fiction) by Camille Bordas, The New Yorker, March 7, 2022

So Late in the Day pictures an Irishman who owns a small house in County Wicklow, on the southeast coast of Ireland. He works in some government agency in Dublin that awards grants in the arts. Throughout the story, he’s mulling over the affair he’s been having with a woman. It would ruin the narrative effect of the story if I said too much about what’s happening in the relationship but we get a vivid picture of a man who’s forced to confront some things about his life. We can feel his presence as he’s sitting in his house thinking, almost if we could hear his breathing and smell his sweat.

Maybe it’s ultra sexist on my part to say this, but the most astounding thing about the story, for me, is that it’s written by a woman. Is it common for a woman writer to be able to recreate so convincingly the mind of a man? I think several male writers have been able to create believable female characters, but I don’t know of many women writers who have portrayed the opposite sex so well.

In the end, though, I do have to wonder whether Ms. Keegan paints too harsh a picture of the Irish male. One of her female characters makes the observation that, when it comes to half of the Irish men, all they ask of a woman is that she shut up and give them what they want. In the context of the story that condemnation has a chillingly emphatic effect. Is it fair, though? Are so many Irish men like that? Aren’t many men around the world like that? Could we even say that a lot of women have the same attitude to their men?

One Sun Only had the same effect on my sexist sensibilities: an astonished reaction on finding out that it was also written by a woman. In this story, our first-person narrator is a writer and a divorced dad who has his two kids in residence for the weekend. The daughter, age 11 is bouncy, cheerful and enthusiastic. The son, age 8, is brooding, moody and seems a bit too preoccupied with the subject of death. The dad is wondering what to do about that, if anything. Looming over the story is the thought of the dad’s father, a successful artist, who died recently, leaving behind a surprising amount of money. The presence of this grandfather in the lives of his grandchildren is not unambiguously benevolent. The old man clearly loved the granddaughter more because she took more avidly to his art instruction. The grandson, being somewhat more recalcitrant, got a much cooler response from the grandfather. That raises questions for the children’s dad about his own relationship with his father, where love hadn’t come easily.

Throughout this night with the kids in residence, the dad’s thoughts range widely. He worries that his kids might become anxious like him; he has fleeting impressions of the more enjoyable lives that childless couples have; he thinks about a writer friend who seems to be having more success than him; he wonders whether people prefer real stories to fiction. It’s all very compelling. What is most remarkable to me is – again – the fact that it’s a woman writer who conveys the inner life of this man so well.

A Shooting at Rathreedane (Short Fiction) by Colin Barrett, The New Yorker, December 23, 2021

An accidental shooting has injured someone on a farm in County Mayo, Ireland. The shooter, the owner of the farm, has phoned the local constabulary to inform them. The cop who goes out to investigate is a woman in her forties who has teenage kids. The shooter explains that he only intended to warn the victim, an intruder, who was stealing from their oil tank and who attacked the farmer’s son with a length of rebar. So far, it seems like we’re immersed in an episode of some tv series much like “Vera,” the one starring Brenda Blethyn as a cop stationed in north eastern England near Newcastle. Hardly the sort of thing you’d expect in the New Yorker.

Except that the flavour of the dialogue and the colourful depiction of the characters, tells us that we’re in a special part of the world. And yet, it’s not by any means a Brigadoon type of fantasy land. We’re up against the hard realities, the grit and grime of ordinary life. As one character sums it up when looking at the Ox Mountains: “That’s the thing about Mayo. I find it’s very presentable from a distance. It’s only up close it lets you down.” When our lady cop gets a good look at the shooting victim, she realizes that she knows him. Then all the arrangements for the necessary business – having him taken to the nearest hospital, informing his partner, dealing with all the paper work – take on quite a different hue, given the cop’s attitude to the situation. The story ends with the startling – but utterly believable – thoughts that you never expect to hear from a cop in conventional detective fiction.

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