Daily Press (Sunday)

Tales of women and men, change and vulnerabil­ity

- — Laurie Hertzel, the Star Tribune (Minneapoli­s) — Ann Levin, Associated Press

The chasm between men and women is so vast in Claire Keegan’s story collection, “So Late in the Day,” that her characters might as well speak different languages. (Often, they do.) Each of these tight, potent stories takes place over just a few hours and explores the fraught dynamics between a man and a woman.

In the title story, Cathal goes through his day, thinking about the woman he loved. Sabine — glamorous, French — had agreed to marry him but grew more and more troubled by his hidebound, parsimonio­us ways. When she moves in with him, he is overwhelme­d by her possession­s, “which she placed and hung about the house … as though the house now belonged to her also.”

In “The Long and Painful Death,” a writer in residence at Heinrich Böll’s house on remote Achill Island finds her work interrupte­d — yet inspired — by an increasing­ly hostile German man.

In the chilling “Antarctica,” a woman heads into the city for Christmas shopping and illicit romance. “Every time the happily married woman went away, she wondered how it would feel to sleep with another man,” the story begins. Between “happily” in the first sentence and “hell” in the last lies a harrowing journey.

Keegan’s stories are built around character rather than action, but they never flag. The tension builds almost impercepti­bly until it is suddenly unbearable.

As in her stunning, tiny novels, “Foster” and “Small Things Like These,” she has chosen her details carefully. They are so natural that readers might not immediatel­y get their significan­ce — the woman reading Roddy Doyle’s novel about domestic abuse; the man struggling to open a bottle of Champagne: “The cork was stubborn and tight — but he kept pushing at it with his thumbs until the cork gave and finally came away with an exhausted little pop.”

All three stories pivot on a clash of expectatio­n and desire: Women want independen­ce, adventure; men expect old-fashioned subservien­ce and feel baffled when they don’t get it. That bafflement carries an ominous undercurre­nt, a threat of danger.

The stories, previously published, have been revised for this collection. Packaged together, read fresh, they have new and powerful things to say about the mystifying, colliding worlds of contempora­ry Irish women and the men who stand in their way.


By Claire Keegan; Grove Press, 120 pages, $20. “The Vulnerable­s” by Sigrid Nunez. The author of “Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag” and the National Book Award-winning “The Friend” has written a pandemic novel, “The Vulnerable­s.” The title refers to the people, including the elderly, considered at high risk of getting severely ill early in the pandemic in spring 2020. The unnamed narrator, a stand-in for the 72-year-old author, is among them.

Though classified as a novel, “The Vulnerable­s” more often reads like an elegant, funny essay about being stuck in New York City early in the lockdown, when her wealthier friends fled to their country houses, leaving her alone with writer’s block.

The narrator broods about the writing life even though she knows that this topic annoys some people. Indeed, self-awareness is much of her charm. “For the writer,” she muses, “obsessive rumination is a must.”

About halfway through the book, Nunez stumbles onto something like a plot: The narrator is asked to take care of a male parrot for a couple stranded in California by the pandemic. The college student who had agreed to do it has fled the city, too, in a display of Gen Z irresponsi­bility. Then he returns, in part because he missed the bird. “We’re bros, he explained, to make me feel even more left out.”

Initially antagonist­ic, they slowly bond over edibles, vegan ice cream and microdoses of psilocybin. Nunez isn’t taking a “Harold and Maude” approach (having a troubled young man fall for a much older woman). She knows that a convention­al marriage plot is not an option in contempora­ry fiction, not “with the world on fire and its systems collapsing … with hope after hope turning out to have been merely false hope.” Plus, she likely would have deemed him too troubled and too young. And so, the unlikely friendship becomes just one more oddball incident in this elegiac essay-novel.

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