Foster: Claire Keegan’s Art of the Unsaid

It is no small feat to make silence an essential part of the story, to make it a character of sorts, or a part of the landscape itself. To let the unsaid speak volumes and tear at our hearts. Other mediums, of course, have baked in access to the power of silence: film, paintings, and photography, especially. Music can also make use of sonic absence to heighten the power of each note, each break in time, and give us more space to process the evolution of emotions. But in the field of letters, mastering silence — and her noble cousin Brevity — requires extraordinary skill.

Claire Keegan’s Foster is the deceptively “simple” story of an unnamed young girl, sent off for the summer to live with a childless couple, the Kinsellas, who may or may not be kin. With another baby on the way, the young girl’s mother and father seem too overwhelmed to handle their small Irish farm and all their children, so they ask for help to lighten the burden by one. Perhaps the new school year, and the end of her pregnancy, will bring relief and allow their daughter’s return in the fall. We don’t really know until it comes to pass, because the story is told by that unnamed young girl, and we learn about the world she inhabits through her eyes alone.

This elevates the unsaid even more, as adult judgments are filtered through the eyes of the girl, giving us their reality but with questions and innocence attached. She usually refrains from asking those questions, but they hang in the Irish summer air, along with the sounds of the farm, and the sea, and, in one section, a wake she’s taken to. The girl seems to blossom over the course of that summer with the Kinsellas, John and Edna, and it’s left mostly to the reader to decide her best fit in the long run. She won’t tell us, directly, but she shows the world as it is to her and it’s hard not to make that call.

This short book is beautiful right up to the last line, which knocked this reader out of his chair. I liked it even more than her very fine novella, Small Things Like These, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Of further interest to me is the way Keegan seemingly extends the unsaid between her publications. Some masters of silence, like Tove Jannson and Tarjei Vesaas, apply that art primarily to the work at hand, not necessarily to their overall production within their respective careers. But Keegan, while highly respected and often honored for her work, chooses to publish rarely, and sometimes, as was the case with Foster, in the form of an expanded reissue. Foster came out in 2010, as an an abridged short story in The New Yorker, and then in book form in the UK later that year. Last year, it finally made its way into a US edition, with a couple of chapters from Small Things thrown in for good measure. It’s also been adapted for film as The Quiet Girl (2022). Can’t wait to see it.

Here’s hoping that someday we’ll awaken to the wonderful news that Claire Keegan has been writing up a storm for decades, secreting away novels and short stories by the dozens, which will now be available to all . . . 

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