If I look up from my desk and gaze around the room to have a think, which I do a lot, this sloping and helpfully magnetic board, my Ideas Board, is to my right hand and almost constantly in my field of vision, so after almost four months of looking at that headline it is almost branded into my skull
'I often have to write a story to make an image go away'
Claire Keegan's short story Foster, published as a stand-alone, long short story by Faber last September has been sitting on my shelf in proof copy for a very long time. So has the interview that Claire Keegan gave Sean O'Hagan that I had cut out from the paper ready for the day that I would read the book, and that snippet declaring that headline has sat on the board next to my desk as a prompt ever since.
Well eventually I had to read the story so that I could finally put that snippet away, clear the board and start a new year with some new prompts and ideas. You might be able to glimpse on there a list of books from BibliOz, enter your date of birth and see what was top of the NYT Best Sellers list for the date, second guess what the midwife might have been reading as you prepared to make your entrance, and I do fancy reading a few of them. You might also be able to spot some cartoons from the New Yorker which our Erika from comments very kindly snips out and sends me and which I love ...and that's enough of a diversion and all you need to know as to why I suddenly picked up Foster and read it as my first book of the new decade.
Foster is set in County Wexford, rural Ireland in 1981, and told in the first person and through the eyes of a young girl who is taken to spend the summer with distant relatives, the Kinsellas whilst her mother gives birth to yet another baby. The story is immaculately measured and boundaried by the limitations of a child's understanding, whilst teeming with those observational skills with which children are frequently not credited but at which they excel. Moments of uneasiness or awkwardness are never missed, nor are the moments of unexpected care
'Her hands are like my mother's hands but there is something else in them too, something I have never felt before and have no name for. I feel at such a loss for words but this is a new place, and new words are needed.'
Slowly what has begun as a cautious and careful relationship between the girl and her carers becomes something much deeper as she settles into this loving and warm, yet inevitably temporary life. The bed-wetting is glossed over by her new 'mother' and it stops, but it is clear this is a home that has known abundant sadness; grief and loss are concealed here somewhere and little signals and hints creep into the narrative, much as they would trickle into a child's awareness.
As Claire Keegan goes on to say on the subject of having to write
'It's like an elbow nudging you into examining something you don't quite understand but need to. For me writing is a way of understanding something, and as such a journey into the unknown.'
I would suggest that reading that writing also becomes a journey into the unknown of the imagination, because I wasn't to know that this would all, at a slant, remind me of the story so well-known in our family... of how my mum at the age of thirteen was evacuated from her working class home in the Dingle in Liverpool at the beginning of the war and placed with a childless couple living in Chester. The couple had sufferred countless miscarriages and lost a baby at a few weeks old, so perhaps my mum fell into a deep pool of surplus love just waiting to be shared because they adored her. They settled her into the Queen's School and paid the fees and my mum was blissfully happy and my grandmother was decidedly not. Taking fright at just how happy her daughter was my grandfather was swiftly dispatched to bring my mum back to Liverpool just as the bombs started to fall and apparently the couple didn't give her up without a bit of a tussle.
Reading Foster suddenly opened up a whole breadth of new understanding to that tale now firmly entrenched in family folklore. I had never really considered the impact on my mum of all this but I feel sure she felt as torn as the girl in Foster, and that is all beautifully delineated by Claire Keegan. Because of the war my mum's education never really resumed, any chances of a career dissipated and her life took a very different path... well she eventually went to work in the NAAFI canteen and met the Tinker for a start... and then they had me so it wasn't all bad.
I'm not sure all this may be what Claire Keegan had in mind when she wrote Foster, and I don't want to elaborate further because to do so would spoil the ending of the book, but there was much more enlightenment for me about the depth of my mum's feelings as I read on. Claire Keegan also talks fascinatingly about the wealth of detail that was left off the page and had to remain so because the girl couldn't have known about it, and you can only wonder at the writerly discipline required to achieve that,
'It's essentially about trusting in the reader's intelligence rather than labouring a point. To work on the level of suggestion is what I aim for. There are so many things the short story cannot do; it's by learning those limitations that I am cornered into writing what I can.'
Oh allelulia to that, because in allowing those gaps and silences Claire Keegan offers her reader the space to expand on her narrative and even, as I have done, overwrite a narrative of their own if they choose and that remains one of fiction's mightiest powers for me. So in these days of stonking great big fat chunky contemporary novels I say three cheers for less is more and 57 pages that say as much as 570, and please can we have much more of this less is more, thank you.