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With 'Foster,' Claire Keegan asks that readers look outward

Foster by Claire Keegan
Grover Press

Claire Keegan has been compared to the Russian author Anton Chekhov and fellow Irish writer William Trevor. She shares their keen sense of empathy, eye for the telling detail, and deep attunement to the moral issues raised by meanness and suffering for witnesses as well as the afflicted.

Keegan's output is scarce and her stories are as spare as they are heartrending, whittled down to the essential. If she has published anything that isn't perfect, I haven't seen it.

Since its original publication in 2010, Foster has become part of the school curriculum in her native Ireland. It appeared in a slightly abbreviated version in The New Yorker, but this new standalone volume is the first publication of the full text in the U.S. It is a beautiful companion to last year's Booker-shortlisted Small Things Like These, her Christmas story and morality tale that makes Dickens' Christmas Carol and Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl seem like glitter-dusted fairy tales. Together, this pair of Keegan's novellas pack a one-two punch.

The nameless narrator of Foster is a little girl whose parents, impoverished Catholic farmers already overwhelmed by too many children and the father's bad habits, farm her out to distant relatives she's never met when her mother's belly is "hard with the next baby." When her father drives her after Mass one summer Sunday "deep into Wexford towards the coast where my mother's people came from," she has no idea what to expect — whether she'll be worked hard or treated kindly, and for how long.

We come to recognize the deprivations of the girl's former life indirectly, through the things she notices, which are so different from what she's used to. "Tall shiny panes," clean kitchen tiles, daisies on the table, the smell of disinfectant and bleach and the rhubarb tart in the oven all strike her as remarkable. When Mrs. Kinsella, even taller than her mother, "looks at my clothes, I see my thin, cotton dress, my dusty sandals through her eyes." The girl quickly recognizes that "this is a different type of house. Here there is room, and time to think."

Before her father hurries off without so much as a hug, he warns the Kinsellas that the girl eats a lot, "but ye can work her." The girl notices Mr. Kinsella's reaction, a subtle reprimand to her father: "Kinsella looks up. 'There'll be no need for any of that,' he says. 'The child will have no more to do than help Edna around the house.'" Later, the girl describes her daily routine: "Myself and Mrs. Kinsella make a list out loud of jobs that need to be done, and just do them" — clean the house, weed the garden, dig potatoes, pull rhubarb, make tarts.

Mrs. Kinsella bathes her, cleans her filthy fingernails, deals with her urine-soaked bedding — all without reproach. In the night, she checks on the girl, who hears the woman whisper, "God help you child. If you were mine, I'd never leave you in a house with strangers." When the woman starts to see the effects of their care, she says, "All you need is minding."

Gradually, from a series of pointed comments by neighbors, the girl learns about the boy whose clothes she was given to wear before the Kinsellas "tog her out" in her own new wardrobe, and the hole in the Kinsellas' life that she is filling. After a particularly malicious woman tells the girl about the Kinsellas' lost son and fishes for gossip about her bereaved caretakers, Mr. Kinsella walks her down to the sea to comfort her. He says, "You don't ever have to say anything...Many's the man lost much just because he missed a perfect opportunity to say nothing." It's a lesson she takes to heart when her mother later grills her about her stay with the Kinsellas.

One of the things Keegan gets so right here is how painful unaccustomed love and tenderness can be because they accentuate what's been lacking. Walking to the beach, Mr. Kinsella thoughtfully adjusts his strides to the child's and takes her hand. She notes, "my father has never once held my hand, and some part of me wants Kinsella to let me go so I won't have to feel this." Then she adds, "It's a hard feeling but as we walk along I begin to settle and let the difference between my life at home and the one I have here be."

At first blush, Foster brings to mind Kaye Gibbons' searing 1987 debut novel, Ellen Foster, narrated by a plucky disadvantaged 11-year-old girl who is relieved, after much hardship, to land in a home where she is loved and wanted, forever free of her abusive father.

But the dilemma in which Keegan's narrator, a victim of neglect rather than abuse, finds herself is more similar to that of the boy in Graham Swift's Here We Are, whose loyalties are torn between the harsh life he led with his struggling, bitter mother and the privileged existence he shared with the kind, loving foster parents to whom he was sent from Blitz-battered London during World War II. Keegan, like Swift, captures how particularly hard the ensuing guilt can be on children.

More than most books four times its size, Foster does several of the things we ask of great literature: It expands our world, diverting our attention outward, and it opens up our hearts and minds. This is a small book with a miraculously outsized impact.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin
Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.