Review: The biggest, most intricately ambitious little story you’ll read this year
On the Shelf
By Claire Keegan
Grove: 128 pages, $20
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It feels particularly American to happen upon a masterful writer long recognized in their own country (and lots of others) and then to gush, obscenely, to make up for lost time. This year’s candidates for the honor, much deserving I’d say, are Gwendoline Riley and Claire Keegan, both writers of sparse, assured sentences that burrow into something ineffable about what it is to be alive and then hold it up with care for our examination and pleasure.
Another thing that feels particularly American: a belief in bigness, brashness, as if precision and structural intelligence weren’t also necessary artistic skills. It feels worth noting that Keegan had published two widely lauded story collections but only got some traction in this country on the publication of her first (very short) novel, 2021’s “Small Things Like These.”
Her new import, the novella “Foster,” was originally published in 2009 and received that year’s Davy Byrnes Short Story Award. It is even tighter — and better for that, I would argue — than the equally slim “Small Things Like These.” It takes place over one summer a young girl spends away with relatives — partly, we assume, because her pregnant mother has too many mouths to feed.
The structure of the story is crystalline, unfussed: We begin at the start of something; we move almost completely linearly through the present tense; we finish when what started on the first page comes to an end. There is a clear and jarring rupture in the second half — a nosy neighbor, an inevitable disclosure, a prickly and uncertain aftermath — followed by a devastatingly earnest and heartbreaking denouement.
In Claire Keegan’s slim, powerful ‘Small Things Like These,’ a man confronts a Magdalene Laundry, one of Ireland’s abusive homes for ‘fallen women.’
This is not to say any of “Foster” is predictable — which in itself is remarkable. Years ago, I tutored high school students writing college admissions essays. The joke around this work was just don’t let them write about grandma dying. Except, of course, for one caveat: If the kid could make a grandma-dying essay work, there was no greater proof they could write. There is something of that with Keegan, whose story is elementally Irish and tragic. There are many children; Dad gambles and drinks; Mom is often pregnant and long suffering. “I roll on my side and, though I know she doesn’t want either, wonder whether my mother will have a girl or a boy this time,” thinks the unnamed narrator.
But in the same way that clichés exist because they hold a truth inside of them, there’s something extraordinary about Keegan’s ability to make some of the very oldest stories feel too specific to be any other story but themselves. “Foster” is exactly as sad as you imagine it would be, but more stunningly alive than you have any right to expect. Its language settles in your belly and then your bones only seconds after it has passed your eyes.
The story opens, “Early on a Sunday, after first Mass in Clonegal, my father, instead of taking me home, drives deep into Wexford towards the coast where my mother’s people came from.” Our narrator, a child but ageless, wise and matter-of-fact, is dropped by her father at the home of relatives whom she seems not to know at all. “The last time I saw you, you were in the pram,” the woman says. There is a mystery about them — a child’s clothes in the closet, a gloom and reticence. “Neither one of us talks, the way people sometimes don’t when they’re happy — but as soon as I have this thought, I realize its opposite is also true.”
Over the course of a few weeks, the girl sees a different way of being in a house, a family, a life. She is cared for, bathed, taken out to get new clothing, catered to and truly spoken to. The man, John Kinsella — referred to only as Kinsella by the girl — starts training her to run. “By the time this summer ends,” he promises, “you’ll be like a reindeer.”
The whole book feels almost completely contained within a small scene in which our narrator chooses to continue to hold Kinsella’s hand. “As soon as he takes it, I realise my father has never once held my hand, and some part of me wants Kinsella to let me go so I won’t have to feel this. It’s a hard feeling but as we walk along I begin to settle and let the difference between my life at home and the one I have here be.”
There is a short story I love, “In the Reign of Harad IV,” by Steven Millhauser, about a miniaturist — an artist so devoted to his craft, so compelled to capture the unseeable and unsayable, that he eventually makes art so small no one can see it. “Not only were the objects of his strenuous art pleasing to look at,” that story begins, “but the pleasure and astonishment increased as the observer, bending closer, saw that a passionate care had been lavished on the smallest and least visible details.”
“Foster” is a small story, but it is not minimalist. Instead of the blunt force of a Raymond Carver story or even the clean lines of Lydia Davis, Keegan’s world is lush and full, the details delicately made, ever more rewarding and engaging with every read. “I think of my sisters who will not yet be in bed,” the girl says. “They will have thrown their clay buns against the gable wall of the outhouse, and when the rain comes, the clay will soften and turn to mud. Everything changes into something else, turns into some version of what it was before.”
Keegan takes care to etch out for us this world’s particularity, to let us see,feel and hear it, to enlist us in helping bring it to life. While the scale of her story is modest — this one small girl, this short stretch of time — the scope of what Keegan can hold inside of it — the ache of living, the flash of seeing finally what we don’t have, the mourning for all we’ll never be — is as big, brash and ambitious as a story might be.
What do we know of our parents? Gwendoline Riley’s “My Phantoms” probes a woman’s relationship to her mother in evocative British dialogue.
Strong is a critic and the author of the forthcoming novel, ‘Flight.’
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