I brought the Granta Book of the Irish Short Story with me to Ireland and am reading a story a day, although I started with a couple of stories under my belt before I embarked. Thus far, I’ve read stories by Roddy Doyle, John Banville, Frank O’Connor, Clare Boylan, Mary Lavin, Colm Toibin and Claire Keegan. Laudably, they’ve showcased the literary acumen that readers expect from Irish short fiction.
Keegan’s Men and Women is one of my favorites. She’s a relatively young writer, born in 1968 and just 31 years of age when she wrote this story in 1999; she writes about rural Ireland with a deft hand. In Men and Women we experience the inequalities of gender roles in traditional Irish society through the eyes of a country girl. Both her brother and her father take liberties with their positions in the family, working less and taking more from the women than their share. Her mother is seemingly resigned to the unhappy situation and has but one desire that she keeps secret from all except her daughter. It’s during a holiday celebration when the worst of the men’s behavior emerges that the girl experiences a sudden epiphany. Only later, when she witnesses her mother’s mutiny, does she recognize how shallow her father’s power really is.
What I liked about this story was Keegan’s ability to intermingle the comic and tragic. The narrator who is never named is both the biggest girl in her class and at the same time, the last one to believe in Santa Claus. She loves her dolls, but she also rips their heads off when she tires of them. She has an inkling about her father’s deceptions, but only through her mother’s eyes does she truly see him for the bully that he is.
Anne Enright edits the collection and in her introduction notes some of the threads that run through these stories, common to the fundamental unit of Irish identity, the family. Perhaps the strongest of these are shame and humiliation. Keegan capitalizes on these emotions, showing us the way Irish men and women use them as weapons against one another. Men and Women is a tightly plotted story that, through the experiences of its most vulnerable character, pulls the reader into the family and reveals its destructive core.