Book Review: Foster

foster

Foster, by Claire Keegan, is narrated by a young girl sent to stay with a couple she does not know, having last met them when she was a baby. The husband and wife are from the child’s mother’s side of the family, farmers living in rural Ireland, like her parents, but doing better financially. The girl’s father is a drinker and gambler, proud to have sired a large brood but unable to fully support them.

“I wonder why my father lies about the hay. He is given to lying about things that would be nice, if they were true.”

The girl’s mother is worn down by her work and coping with multiple, hungry children. A new baby is due imminently so she sends her eldest away to be cared for elsewhere.

The story opens with the girl being driven to this strange new place and then left with just the clothes on her back and feelings she cannot articulate.

The couple who have agreed to take her in – the Kinsellas – are happy to have her. They show a rare good sense and insight in their parenting skills. The girl adapts and fits into their household routines, trying hard to get past the troubling emotions she feels.

Over the coming weeks the girl is well fed, clothed and learns how to be of help, though this is not demanded. She is offered affection for the first time she can remember. She is told there are to be no secrets kept in this house, that secrets bring with them shame. She also learns that when questions are asked, particularly by those looking to gossip or criticise, silence is an option.

The girl feels the undercurrents of adult behaviour more than she understands the reasoning.

“Kinsella’s eyes are not quite still in his head. It’s as though there’s a big piece of trouble stretching itself out in the back of his mind.”

Neighbours are curious about who the girl is and are not always kindly in their motives. Nevertheless, the girl finds she is happy in this place which leads to conflicting loyalties.

“Kinsella takes my hand in his. As soon as he takes it, I realise 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. 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.”

The writing is exquisite – pared down prose that conveys much using words conjoined to perfection. Although the girl senses more than she understands, as the weeks pass certain elements of the adult world are revealed to her. This is conveyed with a rare skill, the reader picking up the nuances not just from conversation but from the way the girl is advised and protected by the Kinsellas.

A beautifully told story that sheds light on life in rural Ireland – the positives and negatives of close knit community and the myriad challenges of child bearing and rearing. Seen through the lens of a young girl adds poignancy but there is no schmaltz in the telling. This is a recommended read.

Foster is published by Faber & Faber.

Book Review: Small Things Like These

small things

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Every now and then a novel comes along that is a gift to readers such is the beauty of the language and the way the author captures the essence of family life and community in ways that are profound. Solar Bones by Mike McCormack comes to mind and now Small Things Like These. Although the latter has a more conventional structure, both focus on family men who understand and appreciate how fortunate they are. It is not that they are huge successes but their mix of good character, luck and hard work has offered them a chance to build a stable home life they value. The pacing is measured but never slow, the story told affecting in its honesty.

The protagonist here is Will Furlong, a coal and timber merchant living in a quiet Irish town. It is 1985, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and times are hard with increasing job losses. Will is married to Eileen and they have five daughters. The family is well respected locally, with Will, especially, trying to offer kindnesses Eileen fears they can ill afford.

Will was raised by his single mother, suffering others’ attitude to this but cushioned by the benevolence of his mother’s wealthy employer. When he encounters the victims of the Catholic Church’s ‘laundry’ system while delivering coal to the local convent, it brings home to him what could have been his mother’s fate.

The Catholic Church in Ireland ran the schools and also many sideline ‘businesses’. What this involved was broadly known but most avoided thinking on it. Girls and women who became pregnant out of wedlock were derided as fallen, their families hiding them away for fear of the shame they would bring on those associated with them. Will considers all this from the point of view of his mother’s experiences but also as a father of five daughters who he is doing his best to raise well.

The threads of damage wreaked on communities by a powerful church are skillfully rendered as Will goes about his day to day business. Eileen may be considered the more pragmatic of the couple but each must live with the decisions they make. These have repercussions not just for them but on their daughters who are currently benefiting from what the church offers.

Here we have an author who weaves words together to form a beautiful tapestry of a story that is both powerful and poignant. The various lives depicted in the community may appear ordinary but behind this is an acceptance of a darkness that people avoid looking at for fear the shadows cast could damage them and theirs.

Any Cop?: Although exploring within the story how Mother and Child Homes and Laundries could continue for so long in plain sight, the writing is far from polemic. Rather it is a hauntingly lyrical account of one man’s conscience when doing right might damage the prospects of those he loves. In taut and piercing prose the author offers up a social history of rare acuity. It is a reminder that for evil to flourish, it only requires that good men do nothing.

Jackie Law