So Late in the Day: Stories of Women and Men

  • By Claire Keegan
  • Grove Press
  • 118 pp.
  • Reviewed by Samantha Neugebauer
  • November 27, 2023

An assured, quietly powerful trio of tales.

So Late in the Day: Stories of Women and Men

Claire Keegan’s So Late in the Day is a slim, curated trio of stories examining the nuanced dynamics between men and women. Two of the tales, “The Long and Painful Death” and “Antarctica,” appeared in previous collections, while “So Late in the Day” was recently published in the New Yorker and discussed on the magazine’s “Fiction” podcast with guest George Saunders. 

Keegan’s prose is known for its quiet intensity and crystalline spareness. Last year, her novella Small Things Like These was shortlisted for the Booker Prize; at just under 120 pages, it was the shortest book ever to make the list. So Late in the Day’s prose is equally exceptional. The Irish author paints scenes in a line or two and can convey a lifetime saturated in misogyny (and a newfound self-awareness of it) in a single internal reflection:

“He had chosen badly; this woman would want to talk. He wished she would stay quiet — then caught himself.” 

If there were a subgenre for these tales, it might be “Stories About Men Afraid that Women Will Laugh at Them and Women Afraid that Men Will Kill Them.” This category — a riff on Margaret Atwood’s notable quote — could encompass much recent writing in these post-#MeToo years, with Kristen Roupenian’s 2017 short story, “Cat Person,” being perhaps the best-known example. Keegan’s titular story, “So Late in the Day,” like other memorable narratives on the topic, strikes the perfect balance between the universal and the particular.

Cathal, its main character, leans away from caricature while still feeling instantly recognizable. He is both familiar and unfamiliar. A seemingly average office worker in Dublin, Cathal is someone who feels “a flash of something not unlike contempt” when he accidentally closes a file without saving it. From the start, we can tell he is suffering, but from what we cannot say: regret, grief, resentment, or some combination of the three? 

Throughout the story, we witness Cathal’s doomed courtship with Sabine, his anal-retentive behavior, and how easily he is upset by anything messy or inconvenient. Cathal is a man who does not want women, especially those nearest him, to take up space. Yet he also craves companionship. He’s the one who initially pursues Sabine, invites her to live with him, and suggests marriage. But when she does move in, he is dismayed, finally telling her:

“I just don’t know about this stuff, that’s all.”

“Which stuff? My stuff?”

“These things. All your things. All this.” He was looking around: at the blue throw, the two extra pillows, pairs of shoes and sandals, most of which he’d never seen her wearing, poking out from under his chest of drawers. 

He himself owned Nikes and just one pair of shoes. 

“Did you think I would come with nothing?”

“It’s just a lot.” He tried to explain. 

Virginia Woolf famously called Middlemarch one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” In the same way, “So Late in the Day” is a story with adult complexity, motives, and obstacles. This complexity is one reason that Keegan’s short stories often have the weight of novels. Even her antagonists aren’t dummies. She can write flawed, disappointing characters without being condescending toward them or making them ridiculous. The reader can tell she takes no delight in Cathal’s downfall.

In comparison, consider the antagonist in the recent novel Yellowface, June, written to be so stupid and unethical that it’s hard not to feel author R.F. Kuang’s ax grinding gleefully against her. Tony Tulathimutte’s protagonist in the 2019 short story “The Feminist” is a match for Cathal. Like “So Late in the Day,” it explores male entitlement on the extreme end of the spectrum, although Cathal can be read as representing the average. He, like many grown-ups, is self-defeating though not completely blinded by his bad behavior and inherited ideas; he teeters between accountability and denial. 

The prose in the collection’s other two offerings, “The Long and Painful Death” and “Antarctica,” is no less stunning or compulsive than in its first story, although the narrative arcs aren’t quite as satisfying. “The Long and Painful Death” — about a writer on a residency at Heinrich Böll’s house and the local man who resents her presence and sovereignty — feels anecdotal. Meanwhile, the abrupt ending of “Antarctica” has a cinematic rather than literary quality.

Nevertheless, that final story is sprinkled with insights into the kind of person who understands the value of intimacy yet is so overwhelmed by resentment toward others’ (especially women’s) happiness that he can neither respect nor form meaningful bonds with them. At one point, the male character tells the woman he’s interested in that he “is the loneliest man in the world” before suggesting they play pool together. He teaches her how but “didn’t let her win one game.” Again, he’s not stupid; he’s lonely and mean. 

Each story in So Late in the Day offers readers the suspense one might feel when walking home alone late at night. Violence lurks in Keegan’s stories, just as it does in our real world, despite it being so late in the story of women and men.

​​Samantha Neugebauer is a research assistant at Georgetown University and a senior editor for Painted Bride Quarterly.

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