What do you read when you are so busy you don’t even have time to think about how busy you are? Short stories, of course. And this month gave me some of the best short stories I’ve read in a long time. I already told you how much I enjoyed Dinosaurs on Other Planets. Claire Keegan’s Antarctica was just as good (if not a little better). This debut collection was published to much acclaim in 1999 and fully deserves all of the praise and prizes it has received.
I love how this particular cover captures so much of what I found in the stories. The color scheme mirrors the sentiment of the title: something cool and somewhat mysterious. The woman on the cover is alone, maybe lonely. And the longer I look, the more I wonder whether the rippled water behind her poses a threat. And the more I wonder, the more detail I see.
Likewise, the longer I think about the stories, the more depth I discover in them. On first reading, I mainly savored the eloquent prose and the feeling the stories conveyed. There are so many shades of loneliness in this collection. There are characters like Cordelia, who lives like a recluse for 9 years, waiting for a meeting with her lover (“Love in the Tall Grass”). There is the nameless, young narrator in “Men and Women” who suddenly realizes as she watches her father through the rear window of a car, snow falling on him, “on his bare head while he stands there, clutching his hat,” that her parents don’t love each other. In “Ride If you Dare,” Roslin is finally, after ten years, ready to get what she wants, “somebody who’ll make her feel like she’s alive again, like she’s somebody under her clothes,” while Guthrie, the man she is with, is happy “he got her for twenty-five dollars plus lunch.”
But there is so much more than loneliness here. These stories are so well written that it would be quite easy to breeze through them and read the entire collection in one sitting. But I loved reading the stories one at a time, at the very end of the day. It was easy to slip into each new setting, getting close to the characters—who always felt close, even though many of them remain nameless—and then putting the book away with a content sigh and pulling up a blanket while contemplating how sad it all is. Strangely enough, though, even though there is tragedy, alienation, danger, or dysfunction in every story, they did not make me sad. Now, this does not mean that there was no emotional impact. I’m not quite sure how to describe the feeling I had while reading. It was like the satisfaction after a wonderful meal where everything was just right or the goosebumps I get when I hold a small and perfectly wrapped box of chocolate truffles in my hands.
How is that for a recommendation: each story is like a perfect bite of chocolate. Read and savor it! I hope you will.
One of the many quotes I marked:
“He stands there as if he has arrived too late at the scene of an accident, knowing he might have done something if only he had come earlier. Behind their backs the perpetual noise of the ocean folds in on itself. Together they listen to the tide, the contradictory waves, counting down what time remains. Because they don’t know what to say or do, they do and say nothing. All three of them just sit there, waiting: Cordelia, the doctor, and his wife, all three mortals waiting, waiting for somebody to leave.”
You can read Keegan’s story “Foster” in The New Yorker here.