Claire Keegan is a wonder. I absolutely loved her short story The Forester’s Daughter as well as her latest novella Small Things Like These, the latter having garnered rave reviews, and very rightly so. With Foster, her earlier penned novella, she continues to impress.
“God help you, Child,” she (Mrs Kinsella) says. If you were mine, I’d never leave you in a house with strangers.”
There’s a moment in this achingly beautiful novella when our narrator, a young girl, is asked by Mr Kinsella whether she can run. She is confused by the question, but what Mr Kinsella wants to know is how fast she can sprint from the end of the lane to the post box. When she runs as fast as she can, Mr Kinsella is impressed by her speed given it’s her first time but indicates that they will try again tomorrow to test whether she can improve. The girl is struck by the idea that she is expected to run any faster to which Mr Kinsella replies, “By the time you’re ready for home you’ll be like a reindeer.” That haunting scene of the young girl racing down the lane is once again presented to the reader in the final pages, but rather than something as innocuous as collecting letters from the postbox, it’s for a reason that’s much more sad and heartbreaking.
Foster, then, is a gorgeous, perfectly crafted novella of great emotional depth where love, kindness, warmth and affection play a significant role in transforming the life of a young girl.
The novel opens with our narrator undertaking a journey with her father deep into the heart of the Wexford countryside where she is to reside with the Kinsellas on their farmhouse for a few months. The girl has many siblings, she’s born into a family that continues to grow, and her mother is once again expecting another child shortly. Having been brought up in an environment of poverty and neglect, the girl is apprehensive about her short stay at the Kinsellas and consoles herself by the thought that she’s only there for a short period.
Her father leaves her at the Kinsella home with no suitcase of fresh clothes other than the ones she is already wearing. Intimidated by her new surroundings, the girl is at first homesick and longs to be back in her familiar space, however imperfect. But things gradually begin to change.
As the days roll by, she becomes absorbed in the daily routine of the household, helping Mr and Mrs Kinsella in the house, kitchen and on the farm, deriving joy from these simple pleasures. The aroma of good, wholesome food instills a sense of wellbeing, and she revels in warm baths (“The water is deeper than any I have ever bathed in. Our mother makes us bathe in what little she can, and makes us share.”)
The Kinsellas buy her new clothes and she develops a fine camaraderie with Mr Kinsella who takes her out on walks and to the beach, and expands her worldview by introducing her to books.
We fold my clothes and place them inside, along with the books we bought at Webb’s in Gorey: ‘Heidi’, ‘What Katy Did Next’, ‘The Snow Queen.’ At first, I struggled with some of the bigger words but Kinsella kept his fingernail under each, patiently, until I guessed it and then I did this by myself until I no longer needed to guess, and read on. It was like learning to ride the bike; I felt myself taking off, the freedom of going places I couldn’t have gone before, and it was easy.
But the Kinsellas harbour a terrible secret and its discovery makes the girl realize for the first time how easily her idyll could shatter to pieces.
Among other things, Foster is a stunning meditation on class differences and the pivotal role a child’s upbringing plays in the shaping of its future. It’s a poignant depiction of how a little bit of compassion and tender loving care can make a marked difference in an individual’s life, considerably altering it for the better. For instance, given that our narrator’s parents have to grapple with financial constraints and are barely making ends meet, it does not help matters that the family keeps expanding. Lack of time and money only exacerbates their precarious situation – her siblings are neglected too and must learn to fend for themselves. For our narrator, life with the Kinsellas is a whole new world altogether, akin to being transported to another orbit and she marvels at how different it is from her family experiences so far. The Kinsellas don’t have children and are relatively well-off and it is no surprise that she begins to blossom under their care.
I go down steps until I reach the water. The sun, at a slant now, throws a rippled version of how we look back at us. For a moment, I am afraid. I wait until I see myself not as I was when I arrived, looking like a tinker’s child, but as I am now, clean, in different clothes, with the woman behind me.
The greatest strength of Foster, though, is how it pulsates with a gamut of emotions, and how Keegan effortlessly packs multitudes in such a short space. Her writing drips with so much beauty and tenderness; there’s something soulful about her spare, finely chiseled sentences that leaves a deep impression on the mind. As with a perfectly composed piece of music, absolutely nothing in this novella strikes a false note. In a nutshell, Foster is an 88-page display of sheer virtuosity, a mini marvel that I’ll remember for a long time to come.