Mini-Review: Claire Keegan’s “Foster”

Foster“All you need is minding.” (Keegan’s “Foster”)

One of the best books I read in the past few years was Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. Nothing in Keegan’s “Foster” connects the two except time, “The Troubles”, and loosely, place, given Radden Keefe’s is set in Northern Ireland and Keegan’s Ireland “proper”. One small detail tethered the story to Say Nothing: one character, a wife, tells her husband one of the strikers died and the reader immediately realizes it’s Bobby Sands, which factors in Keefe’s narrative and lets us glimpse the historical tragedy to Keegan’s domestic one.

“I am in a spot where I can neither be what I always am nor turn into what I could be.” 

Keefe’s book is sweeping, broadly and lengthily developped, and Keegan’s is short, barely encompassing the space of a summer, but what links them is a theme of loss. Keefe writes about what it means to die for a cause and never question its rightness and Keegan writes about children, where they are valued and where they are not, how one can be an unbearable loss and another, an unwanted burden. So that “Bobby Sands” moment in Keegan encompasses grief and loss in that act, not of the actor, but of those who had to live with the act. I’ve now gone ’round and ’round and have yet to offer details of  what “Foster” is about; in the publisher’s nutshell, please: 

It is a hot summer in rural Ireland. A child is taken by her father to live with relatives on a farm, not knowing when or if she will be brought home again. In the Kinsellas’ house, she finds an affection and warmth she has not known and slowly, in their care, begins to blossom. But there is something unspoken in this new household—where everything is so well tended to—and this summer must soon come to an end.

“This is a different type of house. Here there is room, and time to think.”

When the “child” and narrator is brought to the Kinsellas’ home, and it is a well-tended, plentiful, comfortable home, one she’s never experienced before, she is dirty, dishevelled, and feral. Her father, who delivers her, is a man without affection or care for her (not abusive, indifferent and harsh). There is a lovely sequence of events, centred around water, telling us how the child is initiated into her new life: she is bathed and shampooed, clothed, fed, and given comfort, a good, strong bed, books to read, and a beautiful garden and landscape to wander in. Mrs. Kinsella leads her to a well and she drinks deeply of refreshing water. Her spirit is replete with the goodness she is shown. One night, Mr. Kinsella takes her to the sea and, in a beautiful night-time scene, she is awed by it and realizes she has been close to it and never known it till now, much like how she didn’t know what life could be until the Kinsellas. She helps with household chores, more to keep her occupied than in keeping with her father’s idea she should be “worked” for her keep. Her life is transformed and, for the first time, she feels loved and satiated with good things.

“… ‘There are no secrets in this house.’ ‘Where there’s a secret,’ she says, ‘there’s shame – and shame is something we can do without.’ “

Keegan’s novella is neither dramatic nor shocking: there is no physical, or sexual abuse, de rigueur in much contemporary literary fiction, the reader’s growing dread as we approach horrible revelations. There is a Joycian epiphany as the end, though any good reader has “read” it before the child realizes it, which isn’t Keegan’s point. It reminded me of the quietly devastating conclusion to Joyce’s “The Dead” and its impeccable, heart-stopping interpretation in John Huston’s film. If Radden Keefe’s narrative is about how a country and a cause eats its children, then Keegan’s is more elemental and devastating, about how who we are because of to whom we are born can hurt us in surprising ways when we glimpse the promise of something else. If Radden’s “say nothing” during The Troubles kept secrets and shame hidden, then it is something entirely different in Keegan’s story:

“I have learned enough, grown enough, to know that what happened is not something I need ever mention. It is my perfect opportunity to say nothing.” 

It only takes about half an hour to read Keegan’s “Foster” and a lifetime to think about it.

I am grateful to Grove Atlantic for the opportunity to read and review Keegan’s “Foster,” thanks to an e-ARC via Netgalley.     

4 thoughts on “Mini-Review: Claire Keegan’s “Foster”

  1. Lovely review, Miss B. I just finished this and concur in all parts. It’s a moving, beautiful, deeply humane story. Keegan is such a wonderful writer. I read Small Things Like These at the end of 2021 and found it equally satisfying, if not more. Now I have to find the rest of her work.

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    1. Thank you, Sunita! It truly is a lovely story. The more I think about it, the more I appreciate how Keegan reverses our expectations. I shall read “Small Things” on your rec!

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