A masterful portrait of normalised misogyny and sexism
Award winning Irish writer Claire Keegan is a master of short fiction. Her previous novel, Small Things Like These (Grove Press, 2021), at 116 pages is the shortest ever novel to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2022, and won the Orwell Prize for political fiction and Irish Novel of the Year. Her novella Foster (Faber & Faber, 2010) was adapted into a film, Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl) in 2022 and went on to receive an Oscar nomination. The film version of Small Things Like These, starring Cillian Murphy, is slated to be released next year.
Keegan's short stories and novellas are a masterclass in brevity and narrative precision without compromising on the literary quality. Anthony Cummins in a recent interview profile of Keegan for The Guardian noted that her five books to date run to just 700 pages and some 140,000 words.
Her latest short fiction, So Late in the Day, was first published as a short story last year in the New Yorker. Readers can listen to the story read out by Keegan herself on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast followed by an astute discussion of the story and her overall work with George Saunders who admires her writing. The short story was recently published as a standalone hardback by Faber.
So Late in the Day is an astute, layered examination of the casual misogyny and sexism that undoes any chances of happiness in the troubled life of the main protagonist. Keegan has herself experienced it while growing up in Ireland where misogyny was rampant—till 1985, contraception was banned, and marital rape was legal until 1991.
The protagonist Cathal, who works for the Arts Council in Dublin, has internalised casual misogyny, becoming a part of his self, which is also reflected in his everyday life and encounters with other women. His shortcomings and careless attitude towards women ultimately deprives him of a happy family life and prospect of a marriage. His French fiancé Sabine sees through him, even questioning his attitude towards women, and ultimately decides to leave him. Cathal's colleague Cynthia also tells Sabine that for some Irish men women are "are just… whores and bitches". Although Cathal shows some willingness to apologise and does so to her for his insensitive behaviour on one occasion but in the end he can't repress the shortcomings in his character. He is the way he is.
There's a telling scene in the story which is in fact autobiographical, Keegan told the Irish Times in a recent interview. When she was a child, her brother had once pulled a chair from underneath her mother and she had fallen backward onto the floor. When her mother fell, her brother and her father just laughed.
"My own brother did this to my mother when I was a child, and it was treated so casually, as though little or nothing had happened," she said. "It stayed with me all my life. The incident reappears in the short story and is masterfully deployed as a crucial scene to reveal the misogynistic tendencies and sexist attitudes normalised in Cathal's family.
Keegan's fiction is full of understated knowledge, restraint and subtext, lending the stories greater meaning and heft achieved in shorter length. So Late in the Day is not an exception. The story stays with you long after you've read it. You even empathise with her complicated characters, their flaws and the circumstances they find themselves in.
Keegan has been teaching creative writing for the past 30 years. She thinks the opposite of what creative writing classes tell people—to express themselves: "You should learn restraint. McGahern said that all good writing is suggestion, all bad writing is statement."
The seeds of this story were sowed as a writing exercise in one of her creative writing classes. She has said in her interviews that submitting her short fiction to writing competitions with word restrictions at the start of her career taught her "not to make a story longer than it needed to be."
So Late in the Day is just over 6000 words (64 pages), but every sentence, every dialogue is layered and pregnant with meaning. There are no needless descriptions and longer passages of overwrought prose. Casual conversation between characters and taut dialogue reveals, and also withholds, as much as is required to keep the reader fascinated and hooked to the story.
Keegan believes that reading is rereading. So Late in the Day is proof that in the hands of a deft, masterful writer like Keegan, a short story, or a novella, can convey more and be more richly rewarding than many contemporary brick-size novels that could have been shorter. What is not said and only suggested in her fiction conveys more meaning, expanding the imagination and deepening the engagement of the reader. Keegan believes that a reader completes the story. As soon as you finish reading So Late in the Day, you will want to read it again. The second time is more rewarding, helping unlock doors of meanings that seemed shut in the first reading.
If you haven't read Claire Keegan earlier, and only read So Late in the Day, you would want to read everything she has written before. And, like me, eagerly wait to read everything she will write in future.
Majid Maqbool is an independent journalist and a writer based in Kashmir.