‘Men and Women’ by Claire Keegan

There is a timelessness to Claire Keegan’s stories which makes them reminiscent of fable. I find the mythological feel to her work surprising, given the specificity of her prose and its attention to detail. She writes very powerfully of the gap separating children and adults and the lack of understanding between men and women. Her awareness of these gaping openings and where they occur, how they are made manifest, is what distinguishes this story. It is narrated by a young girl who wants to be big. ‘Big’ means licking the nibs of special pencils and sitting behind the wheel of a car while someone else opens the farm gate. For now, though, she is the one opening gates. At a dance at the local village hall she watches her father slow dancing with a neighbour “like slowness is what he wants” and she struggles to understand the strange atmosphere that gathers between her parents as a result – “like when a cow dies and the truck comes to take it away”. By the end of the evening she is not the one opening the gate and she is one step closer to being ‘big’.

First published in Antarctica, Faber, 1999)

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