A lovely, moody debut collection examines hardscrabble days in rural Ireland.
In four long stories O’Keeffe brings the reader to the village of Kilkelly and its environs, where love, jealousy and madness underscore the persistent loneliness of country life. Though taking place in the 1950s and ’60s, the tales seem from an age long ago: One young woman delivers milk in a pony-cart, another listens to the wireless. Rural poverty brings with it a kind of isolation that defies time. In the best piece, “Her Black Mantilla,” young orphan Alice is sent to Tarkey’s farm. She’s to help with the milking and also with James, gored by a bull many years ago and left to the quiet of his room. Middle-aged Davie Condon senses something familiar behind the black mantilla covering Alice’s face, something reminiscent of his pregnant Margaret, abandoned and forgotten long ago. As Davie spies on her from across the field, Alice gets strange comfort from James as she washes his shrunken body and listens to his tales of lost love. In “The Postman’s Cottage,” widowed Kate Dillon, returning from her very first trip out of the village, to visit her son in Dublin, shares the train ride with Timmy O’Rourke, nephew of handsome, notorious Eoin, who courted Kate as a young woman. As their train conversation progresses, Kate recalls the details of Eoin’s disappearance; at the time, he was assumed to be a suicide, but now Kate faces the awful truth that he was murdered, and knows who did it. The titular novella spans the 20th century. Young Jack is mesmerized by the short life of Albert Cagney, a WWI veteran who returned shell-shocked from the trenches, killed himself, and thus altered village life. Jack spends some summer weeks with his old Aunt Mary, a spinster still holding on to the memory of her Albert while the rest of the village tries to forget.
An atmospheric debut, capturing the slow-moving rhythms and ordinary tragedies of Irish country life.