When I spotted a copy of Claire Keegan’s ‘Foster’ in the library I instantly remembered that Claire of Paperback Reader had read it and really admired it a few years ago. At a mere 88 pages I decided that this would be a perfect book for when you just have an hour or two free and fancy trying something new. So the perfect opportunity arose between reading two crime novels (I am having a crime binge behind the scenes) as I wanted something short but different before I returned to a murderous world once more after another, albeit different, one.
The premise of ‘Foster’ is initially rather simple. An unnamed girl has been sent to live with a foster family in the rural countryside of Wexford in Ireland not too far from her own family whilst her mother goes through the final stages of pregnancy. That really is the ‘plot’ as it were. Yet what constitutes plot I sometimes find rather subjective as where there may be less of a stereotypical ‘story’ in the narrative that Keegan creates there is a lot going on in the back ground and often what remains unsaid or inferred is what is really at the heart of the book and where the story/plot can be hiding.
From the start of the tale we are somewhat wrong footed and uncertain of what is going on. Our young narrator doesn’t herself seem to be quite sure where she is going or for how long she will be there. Her family seem to know the Kinsella’s, yet to her they are strangers and so we begin reading with the feeling of uncertainty being evoked in ourselves through her observations. I thought this was a very clever element of Keegan using a young narrator, by no means is she stupid she is just rather naive and simply young and so we must use our adult brains to figure out what is really going on.
In a lot of ways this device really worked for me, I do like books where really the main plot is actually the simple observations of human behaviour in different circumstances. Yet in some ways the device back fires because while I like to work with a novel where things are inferred, sometimes they can be too vague and on occasion I was left thinking ‘hang on a minute I have not got a clue what that is about’. This sadly happened in the particular toward the very end of the book, with the last sentences leaving me so confused I started to feel a little cross and I will admit tainted the read overall a little for me. (Maybe if you have read the story you could email me your thoughts on the last line so we have no spoilers in the comments and also so I might finally ‘get’ what is going on.)
That said when the subtlety works here it does to great effect. Here we have a young girl who goes from a family, that seemingly show her no love what so ever, to a couple who want to show her it in abundance, and as we read on we slowly but surely piece a puzzle together to find out why that is, and it’s done through subtle moments until we and our narrator work it all out. Also its simplicity, and I have to say Keegan’s beautiful prose (which never give a sentence a single word more that it needs), creates a touching story, there is one particular scene involving hand holding which I thought was incredibly poignant and wonderfully written, that it is a pleasure to read for an hour or so.
‘Foster’ is a book which you’ll love if you enjoy being lost in stunning prose of a simple yet touching tale and are prepared to look for the nuances in the writing and the characters to gain a bigger picture. It’s one that might frustrate you a little, as it did me at the end, when the subtlety verges on vague and you feel lost. Yet if you like books bursting with plot and don’t understand why people want a book like this I would say give this one a try, the writing might just convince you, and if not it’s a mere hour or so read that could possibly just convert you. You can even read the original version from which the book was adapted in The New Yorker here. It might just be worth a try. I will certainly be trying one of Claire Keegan’s short story collections in the future at some point.