Review: Claire Keegan’s slim, ambitious new novella ‘Foster’

On the shelf

Support financially

By Claire Keegan
Grove: 128 pages, $20

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It feels particularly American to stumble upon a masterful writer long acclaimed in his own country (and many others) and then to rave obscenely to make up for lost time. This year’s contenders for the honor, I’d say well deserved, are Gwendoline Riley and Claire Keegan, both authors of spare, safe sentences that delve into something unspeakable about what it means to be alive, and then with it Diligence maintained for our examination and pleasure.

Something else that feels particularly American: a belief in greatness, boldness, as if precision and structural intelligence weren’t also necessary artistic skills. It’s worth noting that Keegan had published two much-lauded collections of stories, but only gained some traction in this country with the publication of her first (very short) novel, Small Things Like These, in 2021.

Her new import, the novella Foster, was originally published in 2009 and received that year’s Davy Byrnes Short Story Award. It’s even tighter – and better for it, I’d argue – than the equally lean “Small Things Like These”. It takes place over a summer that a young girl spends with relatives – partly, we assume, because her pregnant mother has too many mouths to feed.

The structure of the story is crystalline, unfussy: we start at the beginning of something; we move almost entirely linearly through the present; We finish when what started on the first page comes to an end. In the second half there is a clear and harrowing break – a nosy neighbor, an inevitable revelation, a prickly and uncertain postlude – followed by a harrowingly serious and heartbreaking resolution.

That’s not to say that “Foster” is predictable – which in itself is remarkable. Years ago, I helped high school students write college admissions essays. The joke of this work was just don’t let her write about grandma’s death. Subject to one caveat, of course: if the kid could get an essay about her grandma dying going, there was no better proof she could write. There’s something of that about Keegan, whose story is elementally Irish and tragic. There are many children; dad plays and drinks; Mom is often pregnant and suffers for a long time. “I roll onto my side and even though I know she doesn’t want to either, I wonder if my mother will have a girl or a boy this time,” the unnamed narrator thinks.

"Support financially," by Claire Keegan

But just as clichés exist because they carry a truth within them, there’s something extraordinary about Keegan’s ability to make some of the very oldest stories feel too specific to be any story other than themselves. “Foster” is every bit as sad as you’d imagine, but more stunningly alive than you’d expect. Its speech settles in your stomach and then your bones just seconds after it passes your eyes.

The story begins with the words: ‘One Sunday morning, after the first mass in Clonegal, instead of taking me home, my father drove deep into Wexford towards the coast where my mother’s people came from.’ Our narrator, a Child, but ageless, wise and sober, is dropped off by her father with relatives whom she does not seem to know at all. “The last time I saw you, you were in the pram,” says the woman. There’s something mysterious about them – a child’s clothes in the closet, a gloom and restraint. “None of us talk like people sometimes don’t when they’re happy — but as soon as I have that thought, I realize the opposite is also true.”

Over the course of a couple of weeks, the girl sees a different way of being in a house, family, life. She is cared for, bathed, taken to get new clothes, cared for and really spoken to. The man, John Kinsella – just referred to as Kinsella by the girl – begins to teach her to walk. “By the end of this summer,” he promises, “you’ll be like a reindeer.”

The whole book feels almost entirely contained in one small scene where our narrator decides to continue holding Kinsella’s hand. “As soon as he takes it, I realize my dad has never held my hand, and part of me wants Kinsella to let me go so I don’t have to feel that. It’s a hard feeling but as we move on I’m starting to calm down and accept the difference between my life at home and here.”

There is a short story I love, “In the Reign of Harad IV,” by Steven Millhauser, about a miniaturist – an artist so devoted to his craft, so compelled to capture the unseen and unspeakable that he ended up making art so small, no you can see it. “The objects of his strenuous art were not only pleasing to look at,” this story begins, “but the joy and amazement increased as the viewer, bending closer, saw that there was a passionate attention to the smallest and least visible detail had been wasted. ”

Foster is a small story, but it’s not minimalist. Instead of the blunt power of a Raymond Carver story, or even the clean lines of Lydia Davis, Keegan’s world is lush and full, the details delicately rendered, ever more rewarding and compelling with each read. “I’m thinking of my sisters who aren’t in bed yet,” says the girl. “They will have thrown their clay buns against the gable wall of the outhouse, and when the rain comes the clay will soften and turn to mud. Everything turns into something else, turns into a version of what it was before.”

Keegan cares about showing us the peculiarities of this world, letting us see it, feel it and hear it, help us bring it to life. While the scope of her story is modest — that one little girl, this short time — the scope of what Keegan can hold in it — the pain of life, the flash of finally seeing what we don’t have, the sadness for all that we’ll never be – is as big, bold and ambitious as a story could be.

Strong is the critic and author of the forthcoming novel Flight. Review: Claire Keegan’s slim, ambitious new novella ‘Foster’

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