Foster by Claire Keegan
Perhaps my favourite author discovery of the year is Claire Keegan. I read her Booker Prize shortlisted novel Small Things Like These in January and it stayed one of my absolute favourite reads throughout the year. So the expectations were high when I picked up her even shorter novella Foster, published in 2010. I was not disappointed. Claire Keegan is the master of the writing the whole world into small scenes in tiny books. She does not need many words to say a lot. And what she says is likely to be a glimpse into rural Ireland of the late 20th century.
We are not explicitly given the year that Foster is set, but the historical moments alluded to place this quintessentially Irish story in the 1980s. A young girl – we don’t know her age, 8 perhaps, maybe 10 – is dropped off at the Kinsella’s house. Her mother had yet another baby and wants one child out of the house for a while. She does not know when she will come back home. She is not sure if she will. On the road with her father she is scared. The only memories she has of her relatives are distant and unreliable and when she enters the house their habits and expectations are so very different from what she is used to. As a reader, you fear for the worst but then something entirely unexpected happens. The Kinsellas are kind, and more than that: they care deeply for the young girl, showing her affection she has never known before. As she grows and changes over the course of one summer, we see through an Irish community through a young girls’ eyes. We hear their whispers, we feel their gaze.
Claire Keegan might not be the right author for those who need grandiose plots, but she is an expert at finding the world in the monotonous routines of ordinary people. She does not need a lot of words, because what she has to say is so truthful that we know it already. All she does is remind us of it, to show us the people and situations we know in a different light. Keegan’s prose is perfected. Not a sentence is wrong. Both these novellas are characterised by an atmosphere that is melancholy, heavy at times, but never quite without hope. Even if her scenes and subjects show us the uglier sides of society, she never leaves us without a character or two to guide us through the darker times and restore our faith in humanity.
Her two other books are sitting on my to be read piles, waiting to be read and I cannot lie, I’m quite excited to have them signed by this new favourite author of mine.