Reading Ireland Month 2023 has led me to the short stories by Claire Keegan. I’m excited for this ‘new discovery’. Keegan’s is the kind of writing I admire, sparse but telling, simple prose revealing deep emotional undercurrents.
“Foster” the short story written by Keegan first appeared in The New Yorker. It was later published as a standalone work in book form in 2010. Keegan in an interview had stressed that it was not a novella but a long short story. The book cover in the photo is a new edition that came out in 2022.
The story is written from the point of view of a young girl from an impoverished family, both materially and emotionally. She is sent far away to stay with her mother’s sister Edna and her husband John Kinsella for the summer to lift the burden off her busy mother who has a house full of children and one more expecting. The Kinsellas are childless and live in a farm house in rural Wexford county.
The age of the girl isn’t mentioned, most probably around eight or nine. Interesting too that her name isn’t mentioned except just a few times, Petal, maybe giving a sense of the neglect she has been having all her young life. The title is ironic, I find, for the word foster often comes in contradiction in a lesser sense, or secondary, to natural birth parents. But here during her short stay at the Kinsellas, the girl has made new discoveries she has not experienced before, what it means to be loved and cared for, and begins to learn kindness and self-worth. Moreover, she is also exposed to the complexity and the dark range in the adult world, the loss and pain that come with life.
Foster has been adapted into film with the new title The Quiet Girl. It is Ireland’s official entry to the 95thAcademy Awards held this past Sunday, a nominee in the Best International Feature category, with its language being Irish (Gaelic). I still haven’t the chance to watch it, now a must-see movie for me. Hopefully I can watch it soon before the Reading Ireland event ends.
When I read “Foster”, I noticed that Keegan’s style is an exemplar of that writing advice we hear often: show, not tell. In some passages, Keegan instills in my mind visuals like watching a scene in a good film, actions and nuanced expressions speak clearly in depicting the characters with no need for dialogues. A couple of examples:
Here’s when the girl and his father whom she calls Da have a meal with the Kinsellas after he has dropped her off before heading right back home:
When we sit in at the table, Da reaches for the beetroot. He doesn’t use the little serving fork but pitches it onto the plate with his own. It stains the pink ham, bleeds.
Here’s another example, when Edna brings into her house some fresh rhubarb stalks from her garden for the girl’s father to bring home:
My father takes the rhubarb from her, but it is awkward as a baby in his arms. A stalk falls to the floor and then another. He waits for her to pick it up, to hand it to him. She waits for him to do it. Neither one of them will budge. In the end, it’s Kinsella who stoops to lift it.
‘There now,’ he says.
Just this short description has revealed the character and the relational dynamics among the three adults. Furthermore, these two passages also tell much about the girl, deep within her reticence, she is observant, precocious, and the reader can assume too that she must be eager to experience what’s waiting for her in the days ahead living with these two ‘foster parents’ for the summer.
The Kinsellas hold a family secret, one that’s heavy in their heart and mind, albeit unspoken. Again, Keegan’s writing comes through with subtle yet powerful revealing. The girl learns of their past from a nosy neighbour, and that is a moment of awakening for her. What happens later in the climax I will not spoil anyone’s reading pleasure. However, John Kinsella’s kind words to her observing her quiet demeanour earlier in the story, we know the girl will keep close to her heart for a long time:
‘You don’t ever have to say anything,’ he says. ‘Always remember that as a thing you need never do. Many’s the man lost much just because he missed a perfect opportunity to say nothing.
As she mulls over the Kinsella’s hidden past, and her own experience while staying with them, she is now empowered by love and loyalty to keep silent that which needs to be kept in confidence. The girl might be reticent, but the single word she utters ending the story is most poignant and heart-wrenching. Again, Keegan has used the minimal to bring her readers to the depths of pathos and meaning.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
This is my second post in participation in the Reading Ireland Month hosted by Cathy 746 Books.
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