Books: Girls of a thousand uses

Antarctica by Claire Keegan Faber pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
The country is a dangerous place. Whether in Ireland or Mississippi, free-thinking girls confined to the sticks have much to contend with: brutality in the name of God, unenlightened patriarchs, turnips, poultry, rustic lechery and toxic boredom. However, it is in this unpromising territory, behind fences and in mildewed sheds, that Claire Keegan periodically discovers gold.

The stories in Antarctica, Keegan's debut collection, can be easily categorised: whether prize-winning, published or previously unknown; set in rural Ireland, the deep South or English cities; preoccupied with characters' weakness, strength or, ideally, courage. The best three defy such distinctions. In "Love in the Tall Grass" a reclusive woman, likeable despite a fondness for ribbons and petals, walks towards an uncertain assignation with lost love. The result perfectly conveys the ambivalence buried in even the best-tended passion, as mistress, lover and wife sit among the reeds, "all three ... waiting for somebody to leave." The young heroine of "The Ginger Rogers Sermon" is growing up in another world, of brutality and practicality and forbidden, hidden differences. The story climaxes at a stately family dance; here, Keegan's prose explodes with the darkness and fire with which Irish writers seem disproportionately blessed. And in "Burns" she once again builds her narrative towards a perfect ending: after an orgy of cockroach-killing a newly-united family falls silent, listening, until "a drop of water falls, plop, into the sink, and they move violently, as one."

In other stories, however, build-up and ending are less gracefully entwined. Unlike "The Ginger Rogers Sermon", the title story refuses to subvert its readers' expectations. Here, while a dangerous stranger can make Greek salad, his flat is littered with ominous portents, and his victim's end is unsurprising. Conversely, despite the promise of a story about a captured rapist, Keegan dilutes its Gothic potential almost to colourlessness, and a vivid ending is wasted. Its successor is another Mississippi tale of hard men and guns, with another "if only I'd known" beginning, but fails to deliver much more than bourbon-advertisement colour. Moreover, an unconvincing psychological twist undermines the whole, as in "Passport Soup", where a child's disappearance is cursorily pinned on her belief in fairies. Like the brief story about being Fred West's neighbour, "Passport Soup" and "Antarctica" have an odd shallowness, as if empathising from a newspaper story has not been taken quite far enough.

However, even the less successful, more apparently forced stories are scattered with tiny jewels. Like one of her characters, Keegan has "learnt fifteen types of wind": the kind that sounds like strange applause, or like someone learning to whistle. Her metaphors shine: the sound of billiard balls "knuckled down"; "wind bloats the clothes on the line"; "his hand ... tore the water's surface"; "the blue-bellied tide breaking in perpetual, salty lather". Carelessness sometimes mars her descriptions: "a neglected ice-cream van's wheels sag from the weight of winter neglect". Equally, urban myths recycle badly - rarely, outside tampon commercials, do women make "fanbelt[s] out of pantyhose". However, even at her most prosaic, Keegan has the ability to re-ignite the mundane - with one sharp phrase for the men who kiss "like they're thirsty and I'm water", or a faultless miniature of "the day you find out you've just wasted ten years".

Her best characters thrive despite arctic marriages and choking secrets: self-sacrificing women, cosseted men and daughters who refuse to be judged "old enough", but grow up looking for freedom. Keegan's heroines are appealingly hardened: the "girl[s] of a thousand uses", restraining sheep and chainsawing before 13; teenagers lashing out at the hired men, or seducing them; adults determined not to be "the woman who shelters her man ... That part of my people ends with me." Her weak male protagonists similarly seethe with life: the bereaved father thinking of sex, for example, or the mesmerised husband watching his new wife take control.

Keegan knows there are worlds of betrayal and broken dreams at a village dance, that fear and madness blaze behind dark farm gates. Without romanticising either the hardship or the drama, she is so good at conveying Ireland, where horses are led beside cars and dancing is a panacea, where the air is damp and smoky, that the "Hell, yeah. You eaten?" of her tougher stories can disappoint. Equally, it is frustrating when details which add power to her unsentimental vision are repeated, and die in the process: sprongs in sheds, women opening gates, deep hems as social indicators. She is an acute and brave observer, but at times her characters and backgrounds seem to merge, inadequately separated by their idiosyncrasies. If, rather than searching for new but imperfectly defined voices, she allows herself to wallow in, and slice right through, the world she knows, her first novel may prove startlingly good.