It’s Contemporary Literature Week on Reading Ireland Month and Claire Keegan’s Foster certainly falls into that category as it was published by Faber in 2010. However, I could just as easily have included it in next week’s Classic Literature category because that is what Foster will undoubtedly become. A classic.
In fairness, Foster could also fall within Short Story week, coming in as it does at a mere 88 pages. Originally written as a short story, it won the Davy Byrne’s Irish Writing Award and was published in full in The New Yorker. It was then published by Faber as a standalone book in a revised and expanded version, which Irish Times critic Eileen Battersby noted had only ever been done previously for E Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain.
Foster is a haunting and sharply crafted tale of a long summer where a young girl is sent to spend the holidays with relatives on another farm. The girl has been sent away to lessen the burden on her cramped home and her strained mother who is pregnant yet again, but she has been told little. One day, after Mass, she is simply driven to the Wexford coast by her shifty and unreliable father and left with a couple she has never met before, the Kinsella’s. She has no idea how long she is to stay and her father’s last words to her, “Try not to fall into the fire, you,” are barely a goodbye.
At first reticent and unsure, the girl is introduced to a level of care and easy affection that she has never experienced before. The wife looks after her with gentle tenderness while John Kinsella draws out her more playful side, timing her daily as she runs to the mail box.
There’s a big moon shining on the yard, chalking our way onto the lane and along the road. Kinsella takes my hand in his. As soon as he takes it, I realise my father has never once held my hand, and some part of me wants to let go so I won’t have to feel this. It’s a hard feeling but as we walk along I begin to settle and let the difference between my life at home and the one I have here be.
Under this atmosphere of acceptance and attentiveness, the girl begins to blossom, learning that life can contain love and a sense of belonging. At a local wake, she learns other things too. She learns about the narrow-mindedness of small communities and she uncovers the sorrow that lies at the heart of the Kinsella’s quiet life.
Foster uses the trope of a child narrator to one of the best effects I have ever read. The young girl, used to living in a house where attention is not necessarily a good thing, is a natural listener and watcher, wary and used to summing situations up before acting. As such, she is open to the power of silences and gives the reader just enough to hint at, rather than spell out the narrative. As such, simple scenes like the child having her shoelaces tied for her, or having new clothes bought for her, take on a greater, more heartbreaking significance.
Walking back along the path and through the fields, holding her hand, I feel I have her balanced. Without me, I am certain she would tip over. I wonder how she manages when I am not here, and conclude that she must ordinarily fetch two buckets. I try to remember another time I felt like this and am sad because I can’t remember a time and happy too, because I cannot.
It is what is left unsaid that gives Foster its undeniable power and depth of emotion. Keegan has crafted a story where no word is out of place and she trusts the reader to decode what sits within the silences, just as her narrator must. As readers we are better equipped to intuit the tensions of the situation, but like the girl, Keegan never completely frees us from a state of heightened apprehension.
While the child basks and blossoms within this new way of living and being loved, it is always apparent that it will have to end, creating a bittersweet melancholy that pervades the book. The spare, lyrical writing has a simple beauty but is run through with that nagging hint of threat, which never allows the narrative to settle.
At some point later in the night – it feels much later – the woman comes in. I grow still and breathe as though I have not wakened. I feel the mattress sinking, the weight of her on the bed.
‘God help you, Child,’ she says. ‘If you were mine, I’d never leave you in a house with strangers.’
There is undoubtedly something particularly Irish about Foster and Keegan expertly captures the particulars of Irish farming communities, yet it has a universality that transcends its Wicklow roots. As the narrative progresses, and the inevitable happens, this shining gem of a novel builds to an almost heartbreaking conclusion which emphasises how unfair life can be and how small moments of love and connection sustain us.
Foster is as lyrical as poetry and has the depth of a full-length novel, yet it’s very brevity is what makes it so impressive. It is perfectly formed and perfectly executed. As a story of love and loss, it explores how grief can be transformed into tenderness, and of how hope endures. Almost unbearably poignant, Foster is the perfect evocation of childhood innocence and adult forbearance, and will undoubtedly be one of my top reads of the year.
You can read the original story as published in The New Yorker here.
READ ON: BOOK
NUMBER READ: 315
NUMBER REMAINING: 431
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!