Patrick O'Keeffe

"The Hill Road"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple FEB 19, 2007)

"They grew potatoes and cabbage, carrots, onions, parsnips, turnips, beets, rhubarb, and strawberries. They baked their own bread and kept hens and ducks for eggs and meat.  They believed that they should suffer, but that God looked upon them with an endless amount of grace, love, and mercy, and all of their anguishes in this world would be repaid with glorious happiness after death."

The Hill Road by Patrick O'Keeffe

Without a trace of romanticism, Patrick O'Keeffe recreates the lives of four sets of characters who live in and around Kilroan, a small town on the southwestern coast of rural Ireland.  Winner of the Story Prize for the four overlapping stories/novellas in this book, O'Keeffe depicts the hard lives of those who did not emigrate, those who stayed behind, scratching out lives from the poor soil and difficult topography on which they had built their farms.  Love offers their only chance for happiness, but as O'Keeffe shows here, love and death are closely intertwined, and few residents ever find fulfillment through love.

In the longest of the selections, "The Hill Road," filled with specific details which make the town come alive, young Jack Carmody tries to understand some mysteries which have affected his family, especially his Aunt Mary.  Albert Cagney, to whom she believed she would be married, returned from World War I a changed man, and Mary's life, too, changed.  Connecting the history of these families to the history of Ireland, Brian Boru, and the Vikings, O'Keeffe gives universality to the interconnected lives of these characters.

"Her Black Mantilla" tells of Alice Gilmartin, an orphan whose much older sister, now deceased, once found love, temporarily, in Kilroan.  As Alice begins work for the Tarpey family, she inadvertently begins to repeat her sister's life—until that becomes impossible due to outside interference.  "The Postman's Cottage" is another "love story," in which a young man vanishes just after selling five bullocks for a good price at the local fair.  As his relationships are explored and his friendships examined, the fate of the young man becomes clear.  "That's Our Name," is a story of secrets evolving from the discovery of the body of a young woman who may have been connected to more than one of the young men in town.

In all cases, O'Keeffe shows how difficult rural life can be and how close the relationships are which develop among the residents—for good and for evil.  Love offers — and nearly always denies — happiness, and the lives of the women are full of endless chores and responsibilities.  O'Keeffe's prose is masculine but full of local detail, which creates atmosphere and gives depth to the picture of rural life, and his ability to conjure characters, often in just a few paragraphs, is brilliant.  A realistic picture of rural Ireland without the false romanticism with which it is so often painted.
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About the Author:

Patrick O'KeeffePatrick O'Keeffe was born and raised on a dairy farm in rural Ireland. He immigrated to the United States in the mid-1980s when he was in his 20s. He graduated from the University of Kentucky and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan, where he studied with Nicholas Delbanco, Charles Baxter, and Eileen Pollack. 

He is now a lecturer at the University of Michigan and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014