The evidence of memory
by Keith Taylor
From the September, 2005 issue
Although Patrick O'Keeffe has lived in America for a couple of decades now a good deal of that time in Ann Arbor it is clear that his imagination remains firmly rooted in the Ireland he left when he was in his twenties. His first book, The Hill Road, a collection of four long stories, is set in rural Ireland, in and around a fictional village that seems to be hidden somewhere on the map of County Tipperary. The time period of the stories appears to be, for the most part, sometime in the 1960s or 1970s, the time of the generation who came of age just before the country was transformed by the EU economic miracle, when life and all the problems and glories of it was still contained within parish boundaries.
O'Keeffe does many things well in these quiet and evocative stories. He creates a setting with quick and masterful strokes. The four pieces here are connected by the place, the fictional village of Kilkelly and its neighboring towns and landscape. This is the working Irish countryside, still only a small step removed from poverty, certainly pastoral but not the kind of place usually found on postcards. His characters seem as real as my Irish relatives. But this storyteller is particularly good with his use of time. I suspect that either philosophically or constitutionally Patrick O'Keeffe has a sense that all of time is contained in the present moment. All of these stories move easily through chronologies, building tension and plot as moments from the past are placed beside the present, where even the future can be intimated in the weight of the past.
For instance, "The Postman's Cottage" begins with this wonderfully accented paragraph:
Every third or fourth Friday, up till thirty or forty years ago, which is long before milking machines were even heard of, and places not even too far in from the road still didn't have
electricity, there used to be autumn fairs in the village of Pallas. After morning milking, the farmers who were selling would gather their heifers and bullocks and hunt them down the fields, along the byroads and the main road to the square in Pallas. For miles around you could hear the cattle lowing along the roads, although louder than them were the shouts of the farmers themselves swinging at and hitting the often restless beasts with their ash sticks.
Out of this carefully constructed pastoral paragraph is spun a web of passion, crime, and guilt that spans all the decades between the time mentioned there and the present, as seen in the memories of a recently widowed middle-aged woman who is riding a train from Dublin back toward her home. Over the course of some forty or more pages we follow the author back and forth across time, until the story emerges out of the evidence of memory, understated and more effective for being so, but frightening in its implications.
Patrick O'Keeffe reads from The Hill Road at Shaman Drum Bookshop on Wednesday, September 14.
[Review published September 2005]
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