Foster by Claire Keegan won the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award in 2009 and had been recommended to me by several people. I bought the Stinging Fly edition and look forward to reading the other stories in this anthology.
Foster is a long short story, subsequently published by Faber&Faber as a standalone book.
The story is told through the point of view of a young girl who has been sent off to live with distant relations while her mother is pregnant with her baby brother. Nobody explains to her where she’s going or for how long but we understand a lot about her character and her life by her observations on the journey to her new home.
‘We pass through the village of Shillelagh where my father lost our red Shorthorn in a game of forty-five.’
Her fluctuating expectations of what the family will be like give us an insight into what her own father is probably like:
‘He will take me to town on the tractor and buy me red lemonade and crisps. Or he’ll make me clean out sheds and pick stones and pull ragweed and docks out of the fields.’
The element of this story that makes it outstanding for me is the dialogue. This is the first exchange between the girl and the foster mother:
‘The last time I saw you, you were in the pram,’ she says, and stands back, expecting an answer.
‘The pram’s broken.’
‘What happened at all?’
‘My brother used it for a wheelbarrow and the wheel fell off.’
This is certainly not a Hollywood movie–no hugging and consoling. The conversation continues:
So how is your mammy keeping?’
‘She won a tenner on the prize bonds.’
‘She did not.’
‘She did,’ I say.
The girl doesn’t complain about anything and just accepts her lot. She notices the neatness and order of the foster home. She sees the respectful way the couple speak to each other, how each job on the farm and in the house is done properly, methodically. Neighbours come to the house unexpectedly and Kinsella goes with them straight away to help. These are good people. Through all her observations, we realise that her home life was far from perfect. Her mother has a clatter (not clear how many) of children and they have very little money. Yet the girl misses her mother and hopes to go home.
As the story unfolds we learn more about the couple who have taken her in and their own personal tragedy, but so much is left unsaid. Somehow we know much more about these characters than the author has told us directly. We are able to imagine their whole lives.
Claire Keegan wrote about Foster:
‘It’s essentially about trusting in the reader’s intelligence rather than labouring a point. To work on the level of suggestion is what I aim for in all my writing.’
The narrator doesn’t tell us much about her father or Kinsella yet we get a feel for them through the dialogue, even though they don’t say very much at all.
‘Dan,’ he says, and tightens himself. ‘What way are you?’
‘John,’ Da says.
They stand, looking out over the yard for a moment and then they are talking rain: how little rain there is, how the fields need rain, how the priest in Kilmuckridge prayed for rain that very morning, how a summer like it was never before known.’
Although the girl is dirty and undernourished, the author avoids the cliché of depicting her as the product of poor, miserable Ireland in the 80s. Instead we find that the girl is happy with her lot. The experience of the summer with the Kinsellas has enriched her life.
And we see, from the walk on the beach with Kinsella, that she too has enriched his.
‘He shines the light along the strand to find our footprints, to follow them back, but the only prints he can find are mine.
‘You must have carried me there,’ he says.’