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.