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Review of Foster by


by Claire Keegan

4 out of 5 stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Reviewed .

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I am a firm believer that there is room for a wide range of literature. As much as my favourite form of storytelling is a juicy and straightforward novel, I enjoy short stories and novellas, stage plays and movies, video games and songs. Foster, by Claire Keegan, is an example of why I’m grateful that, at least for now, publishing has niches that have room for smaller, quieter tales. Although not something I would have picked up for myself (it was a gift), Foster is perfect in that it sets out with realistic goals and accomplishes them.

Set in Ireland, this novella follows an unnamed young girl sent to live on the farm of some relatives for the summer. She comes from a large family and is apprehensive about living with a childless couple—but as the summer progresses, they show her a tenderness and love that she could not have expected simply because she had no frame of reference for it. Far from a fairy tale, however, Foster is a story of juxtaposition: reminisces and the reality of the narrator’s family of origin continuously intrude upon her stable summer.

I don’t know much about Ireland. So one thing that immediately struck me as I read Foster was how deeply Irish it is—in a good way. Keegan traces geography as the narrator arrives at the Kinsella farm, casually references aspects of Irish life—especially rural life, on a farm—that most readers outside of Ireland, and perhaps a good few within, would not get on a first read. That’s the beauty when a talented author turns her hand to a novella: the limits of the form encourage a crispness of language and worldbuilding that novels usually don’t. Much like the long and languid summer over which it takes place, Foster evinces an effortless timelessness: there are newspapers and cooktops and Weetabix (for skincare, lol), television and cars and telephones. But there’s no web, no cell phones, no constant sense of connection and surveillance and participation. The narrator is isolated but not alone, disconnected but not dissatisfied.

This sense of utopia is undercut then by the narrator’s distinct feeling of being out of place. She’s unused to being the centre of attention, for she comes from a very large, Catholic family. The care she receives from both the Kinsellas feels uncomfortable—itchy. Mrs. Kinsella’s fussing over her cleanliness, complimenting her appearance, gently reproaching her for not cleaning out her earwax—to which, the narrator responds, her mother didn’t always have the time. Mr. Kinsella’s comfortable silences and the companionableness that the narrator feels with him as they are out on the land, something more subdued and powerful than the brooding silences of her father. One of life’s ironies is simply that we don’t get to choose our family of origin, nor do we have a great deal of control, at least as children, how we end up relating to our parents. Some people have beautiful childhoods; others have turbulent ones; most of us have something in between. Keegan captures this fundamental disconnect here, encouraging us to reflect on what it means to feel at home someplace.

Honestly, there’s a part of me that is suspicious of how much I liked Foster. I feel like I shouldn’t like it. It defies so much of what I personally enjoy about stories. Maybe that’s why I like it though. I appreciate its stubborn avoidance of any direct, external conflicts. I like that it never names the narrator. Keegan displays such confidence in how she restricts her narrative in its timeline and scope, almost as if she is challenging the reader to say, “No, this isn’t enough.” Except it is.

Foster is a sufficient story. It doesn’t grandstand or stunt. It invites you in, sits you down, and just as you are getting comfortable, sends you on your way.


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