William Trevor described the short story as “the art of the glimpse”. The form and structure of the short story could hardly be more aptly summed up, and it is an art form that is and has become synonymous with Irish writing. O’Conner, Joyce, Magahern, Montague, Tobin, McCann and others have made the short story an art form that presents the elemental nature of the story.
Claire Keegan’s new book Foster is a single story published on its own, which deals with a young girl in rural Wexford who is taken in by a foster family for the duration of yet another of her own mother’s pregnancies.
Winner of the Davy Byrnes Award, Foster is taut with secrets and delves into the community and family life of rural Ireland where everyone’s business is everyone else’s and if a secret survives it is so often to protect a dark shame. Keegan has perfected the art and poetry of the short story. Following on from her previous award winning collections Antarctica and Walk the Blue Fields, this new story examines and elucidates the family hierarchy and the role and identity of each member of the household.
Foster invites the audience and reader to imagine the life of the young girl as she is uprooted from familiarity and security in knowledge of her surroundings to a place where she knows not the rooms in the house or even the clothes on her back. The young girl grows and realises she can adapt and is inherently stronger than she previously thought or knew. The secret of the house becomes her secret too and she takes on a vow to protect those whom she has grown to love. Secrets may be evidence of shame to some families, but here, this secret is an act of devotion from the girl to her foster parents.
Each room and wardrobe in the house has its own story and history. The girl may be fostered into a new house but she must find her own place, her own voice and her own identity within. The death of a child in the house some years previous allows for an overbearing sense of emptiness and loss. Keegan’s skill is in also presenting a family that longs to be rid of its secret and its shame but fears being free owing to the suspicions and gossip of friends and neighbours. The secret owns the family.
“Everything changes into something else, turns into some version of what it was before”. Here the girl contemplates on her own evolution, her own growth from child to womanhood. Her life becomes shaped by what and where she was fostered into. The transplant of her life into the life of another family who have suffered loss is an incredible story that Keegan masterly presents through the short story.
This form works so well owing not to what is says but often to what it leaves out. As William Trevor said, it is the art of the glimpse.
Foster is out now, published by Faber.