Foster by Claire Keegan

When I look back over the last three months, Claire Keegan’s beautiful novella Small Things Like These stands out as one of my favourite recent reads. Set in a small town in County Wexford in the run-up to Christmas 1985, the book tells the story of Bill Furlong, a thoroughly decent, hardworking man who stays true to his personal values when he sees worrying signs of abuse at the local convent. It’s a deeply affecting story about standing up to the Catholic Church and doing right by those around you, even if it puts your family’s security at risk.

Clocking in at under 100 pages, Foster is an earlier novella in a similar style, drawing on themes of family, kindness and compassion from a child’s point of view. It’s a gorgeous book, just as exquisitely written as Small Things Like These, confirming Keegan as one of my favourite Irish writers alongside the wonderful Maeve Brennan.

As Foster opens, a young girl from Clonegal, County Carlow is being driven to County Wexford by her father, Dan. There she will stay with relatives, an aunt and uncle she doesn’t know, with no mention of a return date or the nature of the arrangement. The girl’s mother, Mary, is expecting a baby, and with a large family to support, the couple have chosen to take the girl to Wexford to ease the burden at home.

Almost immediately the girl detects some differences in her new environment with John and Edna Kinsella. Like the girl’s parents, the Kinsellas are country folk, living and working on a farm – and yet the atmosphere feels more relaxed here than at home, less rushed with more space to think and breathe.

With my mother it is all work: us, the butter-making, the dinners, the washing up and getting up and getting ready for Mass and school, weaning calves, and hiring men to plough and harrow the fields, stretching the money and setting the alarm. But this is a different type of house. Here there is room, and time to think. There may even be money to spare. (p. 12)

The story is narrated by the young girl herself (whose name we never learn), a viewpoint that gives the novella a beautiful sense of intimacy, perfectly capturing the uncertainty of not knowing how the future will pan out.

And so the days pass. I keep waiting for something to happen, for the ease I feel to end – to wake in a wet bed, to make some blunder, some big gaffe, to break something – but each day follows on much like the one before. (p. 37)

With no children of their own at home, the Kinsellas treat the girl with love and compassion, demonstrating their values through simple acts of kindness. As John works the land, preparing the crops for harvest, the girl helps Edna around the house, lighter work than she has been used to at home. Here she learns how to prepare fruit from the garden for jam and tarts, the simple rhythms of domestic life. There’s time for some fun too, the occasional trip to town to buy clothes and sweets – when John gives the girl a pound note to spend, her eyes light up. We also learn a little more about the Kinsellas themselves, how past sorrows have almost certainly shaped their affection for the girl, whom they treat as one of their own.

As the summer draws to a close, the sense of uncertainty about the future heightens, sharpening a little the atmosphere in the house. I won’t reveal anything more about how the story plays out, other than to say that Keegan really lands the ending – it’s an unforgettable scene.

Keegan writes beautifully about the gentle rhythms of country life. There is a purity and simplicity to her prose, a luminosity that builds through the book.

All through the walk, the wind blows hard and soft and hard again through the tall, flowering hedges, the high trees. In the fields, the combines are out cutting the wheat, the barley and oats, saving the corn, leaving behind long rows of straw. We meet men on tractors, going in different directions, pulling balers to the fields, and trailers full of grain to the co-op. Birds swoop down, brazen, eating the fallen seed off the middle of the road. (p. 49)

Her style is uncluttered and spare – every phrase has just the right weight and meaning, not a word out of place. She also leaves plenty of space in the story, allowing the reader to make their own connections between little hints and observations to fill in the gaps.

Occasional references to external events seem to locate the story in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, and yet there is a timeless quality to it, reflecting the Ireland of old. Keegan also nails the atmosphere of a small, close-knit community to perfection, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business and gossip is rife. In this scene, a nosy acquaintance of Edna’s has just come back from a funeral with much to report.

She takes off her cardigan and sits down and starts talking about the wake: who was there, the type of sandwiches that were made, the queen cakes, the corpse who was lying up crooked in the coffin and hadn’t even been shaved properly, how they had plastic rosary beads for him, the poor fucker. (pp. 57–58)

In summary then, Foster is a sublime novella, a masterclass in the ‘less-is-more’ school of writing – a poignant story, beautifully told. Another very strong contender for my annual reading highlights.

Foster is published by Faber & Faber; personal copy.

38 thoughts on “Foster by Claire Keegan

  1. kimbofo

    Thanks for the reminder of this beautiful story. I read it several years ago now. A slightly different version is available to read on the New Yorker if any of your readers want to check it out. Just Google the time and it comes up as first result.

    Can I recommend her short story collection Antarctica ? It’s the collection that got me into short stories… before then I would never read them, but now I’m quite happy to settle down with a volume of short fiction.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, thanks for the heads up on Foster being available to read online, albeit in a slightly different form! I’ll check that out. I actually read this on my kindle as it was going cheap just after I’d read Small Things, and I could tell from the description that it would be right up my street.

      Thanks also for recommending her short stories, Kim. I’ll definitely be picking that collection up. In fact, both her short story collections look excellent, well worth exploring. Isn’t it great when you find a writer like this, someone who creates such relatable characters in the sparest, most finely judged prose?

  2. Max Cairnduff

    It sounds brilliant, though perhaps that’s unsurprising given it’s from the author of Small Things Like These. Having read your piece I’ll definitely pick it up.

    Child voices are very hard to do. Interesting that Keegan pulls it off.

    Dreadful cover though sadly. One to get in ebook form…

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes! I’m not normally a big fan of child narrators, but in this instance everything feels so natural and relatable. Not at all quirky or annoying, which can be some of the pitfalls with this type of approach.

      Funnily enough, I read this on my kindle as the ebook was going cheap just after I’d finished Small Things, and it felt like a no brainer. Plus, as you say, the physical cover is terrible, very “women’s fiction” in the worst possible sense. So, I was very happy to kindle it in this instance!

  3. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Wonderful review as always, Jacquiwine! I read this one recently, right after Small Things (and gave it a paragraph in a short reads summary. It deserved much more) and had much the same reaction that you had, i.e., it’s every bit as impressive as Small Things and confirms Keegan as one of my very favorite writers. I immediately invested in Walk the Blue Fields, Keegan’s second collection of short stories (of course, haven’t read any yet!).
    As pointed out above, a version of Foster is available in The New Yorker; subsequently Faber & Faber took the most unusual step of publishing an expanded version separately. And aren’t we all glad that it did so? Such a wonderful story, with an incredible child narrator, alway a difficult thing to carry off (I thought Irmgard Keun did a very nice job with this device in Child of All Nations but — nothing compared to Keegan!). Although it’s a less dramatic than Small Things, I actually preferred Foster, as it so perfectly captures a small child’s point of view, with its combination of very sharp observation and incomplete comprehension of the adult world around her.
    The New Yorker must love Keegan’s work, as it published another of her short stories (“So Late In The Day”) in one of its Feb 2022 issues. You can actually listen to Keegan herself read it, as well as read a short interview in which she discusses it.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s brilliant, Janakay. Many thanks for the link! I’m very much a podcast person and often listen to various recordings when I’m walking somewhere on my own, so this is right up my street.

      You’ve made a great observation about Foster there, how it perfectly captures a child’s view of the world – sensing that something feels odd even when things are being withheld. I loved that aspect of the story, together with the air of uncertainly about what the future will hold – not just for the girl but for the Gallaghers too. Those story collections sound excellent, don’t they? I’m definitely going to pick them up at some point in the future, hopefully sooner rather than later.

  4. Jane

    What a wonderful sounding story, I haven’t read anything by Claire Keegan but she’s definitely someone I must look out for!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the cover does it no favours at all! Definitely a ‘must read everything’ author for me, as Buried in Print would put it. I’m so glad to have discovered her…

  5. heavenali

    This sounds absolutely wonderful. I loved Small Things Like These, my first by this author. I love well done child voices, it’s always a powerful lens through which to tell a story. I’m sure I will get to this eventually.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’ll love it, Ali. I’m not always a fan of child narrators (so difficult to get right!), but in this instance it’s really well done. Nothing feels forced or mannered, and there’s a lovely balance between the central character’s innocence and the mysteries of the adult world. It’s such a touching story, beautifully told.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, a light touch – that’s exactly right. I think that’s partly what I was trying to capture with my comments about the purity and luminosity of Keegan’s writing. She taps into some deep emotions with a lightness of touch. It’s beautifully done.

  6. 1streading

    It feels as if one of the key ingredients is this uncertainty about how long the girl will stay there so that even the happiest scenes are touched by sadness. This sounds like something I could recommended to my older pupils.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely. The girl’s father doesn’t even say goodbye when he leaves her with the Kinsellas, possibly because he’s not the sort of person who expresses a lot of emotion. Funnily enough, I read somewhere that it’s on the school syllabus in Ireland, so you’re bang on with those comments!

  7. Julé Cunningham

    When I first heard about this book of Keegan’s somewhere, it appealed even more than the very appealing Small Things… especially with its portrait of country life, the relationship between the young girl and the Kinsellas, and the beautifully handled ending. A wonderful review of an eagerly anticipated book, thanks Jacqui!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s absolutely gorgeous, Jule, and the relationship between the girl and her foster carers is so beautifully portrayed. It’s clear that Keegan has a deep understanding of the rhythms of family life, especially those in a small rural community. My mother was born and raised in Cork, and Keegan’s depictions of life in Wexford remind me so much of summer holidays at ‘home’.

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  9. BookerTalk

    I read Small Things Like These just recently and loved it, so much so that I’ve now read it for a second time. Kim had told me about the New Yorker version but I hadn’t realised there is a more extensive hard copy version which must be the one you read. I think I’d prefer to go for that one.

    You mention Maeve Brennan, an author I’ve not read but the fact you rate her as highly as Keegan has me thinking she is certainly someone I want to discover. Any recommendations on where to begin??

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I don’t know how different the two versions are, but it’s interesting that Faber took the decision to release the full story as a book. It’s certainly strong enough to stand on its own. There’s also a film adaptation coming up soon: The Quiet Girl, due to be released in mid-May. It looks very promising based on the first-look reviews, so I’m looking forward to seeing how it compares.

      For Maeve Brennan, there are two options worth considering. I started with her short story collection, The Springs of Affection, which is probably one of the best I’ve ever read – so you could go for that. Alternatively, there’s a brilliant novella called The Visitor, published by a small press – New Island Books, I think – another great entry point for Brennan’s work.

      1. BookerTalk

        Wonderful news on the film adaptation though whether I’ll get to see it is another matter – can’t remember the last time I went to the cinema. The Visitor will probably work best for me, I do love novellas but not short stories.

  10. peterleyland

    I read Foster Jacqui and it was every bit as good as you said. I felt within the book if that makes sense. Thank you for recommending it

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s great to hear, Peter. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. And yes, I do know what you mean about the atmosphere Keegan creates. You feel as if you’re sitting in the house, watching Edna and the girl going about their daily chores. There’s an intimacy or closeness about Keegan’s writing that really pulls the reader in.

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