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Antarctica by Claire Keegan

“She thought of Antarctica, the snow and ice and the bodies of dead explorers. Then she thought of hell, and then eternity.”

Just before Christmas, a married woman travels to another town to try sleeping with a stranger but her adventure turns into something she could never have wished for. Cordelia reminisces on her way to a date with her former lover that she has waited nine years for. Two sisters find themselves on very different paths – that of sacrifice and that of selfishness. A mistreated mother and housewife gets the chance to stand up to her husband at last. Antarctica contains love stories, coming-of-age stories, tales of patriarchy and women’s subordination, infidelity, grief, heartbreak and more. The settings vary, some stories are distinctly Irish, some are set in the Southern United States, and the eponymous story takes place in the UK.

Antarctica is Claire Keegan’s debut collection. Sixteen short stories, first published in 1999 and to great critical acclaim. What unites this quite diverse selection of short fiction is the darkness that marks the stories which can at times be gruesome and hard to read, despite Keegan’s effortless prose. That gloomy, melancholy atmosphere is common to Keegan’s work in general but Antarctica lacks the gentle, hopeful touch of her later novellas, which might not appeal to every reader. Dark in their themes, most of the stories are still luminous in their prose (though as in most short story collections, some pieces are stronger than others.) Claire Keegan’s writing is already that concise and precise magic so revered in her later work. This queen of short fiction manages to convince with her clear vision and expression of human behaviour. She is unafraid of expressing uncomfortable truths, making the sense of dread all the more impactful. Especially those stories set in her home country Ireland are marked by a rare reality, however uncommon the scenes described might be. It is obvious how thoroughly she has grasped the essence and flaws, even shameful secrets, of rural Ireland and its inhabitants and she does not hesitate to hold up a mirror to her countrymen. In this way, her storytelling is Joycean. Her stark truths remind me of those in Dubliners, though often bleaker. Many of the stories in this collection are just as chilling as the title suggests, haunting the reader long after finishing the book.

“Her always hiding women away, like we’re forbidden.”

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