Are all Irish stories tinged with sadness and melancholy and filled with secrets, some secrets devastating? No, I suppose not, but the two I read for March (had I not run out of time I would have added more to my reading pile, but I'll get back to them later) certainly have those qualities. Claire Keegan's beautiful novella, Foster, had the added bonus of being narrated by a young girl. It's not quite a coming-of-age story, but it does have about it a realization of a different world and is about a transformative experience both literally and psychologically. I have read a few of Claire Keegan's short stories, so I knew Foster would be good, but it was really, really good. Much in the same way that William Trevor has a knowing way about his writing yet is totally unselfconscious, so too does Keegan (there must be something in the water in Ireland). Both authors have an economy of style but neither lacks anything in the stories they tell.
It took me a while before I understood the title of the book, and it wasn't until I saw another jacket illustration with the title "The Foster" rather than just "Foster". It's amazing how one three letter article can change the meaning of a word. Foster could be the name of a boy, or it could be what a child is called who is sent off to stay with others when her family cannot take care of her. The young girl in this story, nameless and small enough to be held on someone's lap (yet filled with wonder and enough curiosity to just barely understand things are trickier in life than they appear), is taken by her father to stay with 'her mother's people' some distance away. Her mother is nearing the end of her pregnancy and already has a full house of small children and soon won't be able to manage all of them, so one is sent off to relatives.
Girleen, Kinsella calls her. Her ma's brother if I have the family ties right. Her father is a proud man yet he cannot provide for them all and hasn't even the money to take in the harvest. Kinsella and his wife Edna are alone in their home, a well-kept farm all clean and tidy and well cared for. The girl looks no better than a tinker's child, grimy with dirt under her nails and dusty feet in sandals. Always in a hurry to leave her Da has forgotten to bring her bits and bobs as Edna calls them, so she takes her to find other clothes to 'tog her out' after a good scrubbing which includes under the nails and inside the ears.
The child wants both to go back home with her Da and stay right where she is in this clean, quiet house where so much care and attention is shown her. Surely she has left a ramshackle home for this place where she will even have her own books, even if at first she is togged out in clothes that are too big for her and must be rolled and cuffed and belong to someone else. The couple has an obvious affection both for each other and for her and when Edna takes the girl on a quiet afternoon walk to a well the girl assumes there is something secretive in their journey. The couple are fair but firm and Edna impresses upon her that:
"There are no secrets in this house, do you hear?"
"Where there's a secret, she says, there's shame, and shame is something we can do without."
The girl's "yeahs" turn into proper "yeses" and the attention shown her is loving and without censure or anger. It is a different world for her. And she blossoms.
"I wait until I see myself not as I was when I arrived, looking like a tinker's child, but as I am now, clean, in different clothes, with the woman behind me. I dip the ladle and bring it to my lips. This water is cool and clean as anything I have ever tasted: it tastes of my father leaving, of him never having been there, of having nothing after he was gone. I dip it again and lift it level with the sunlight. I drink six measures of water and wish, for now, that this place without shame or secrets could be my home."
But the adult world is different than that of a child's. Or maybe it's the world outside the Kinsella's home that is different. The Kinsella's live without malice or shame yet they still have a secret they do not like to talk about. It takes a (not particularly) well meaning village lady to shed light on their circumstances to the young girl. There is malice in the world, or maybe it is jealousy or plain meanness in the revelations she shares with the girl about the Kinsella's painful 'secret'. So maybe this is a coming-of-age story after all, in its own way. The girl is exposed to hard truths in a cruel manner. It's not anything that the Kinsellas did that will be shocking, but what happened to them. So the girl gets a painful glimpse at the adult world. The reader understands and maybe, too, the girl does in her own way.
But what matters in the end is this new world and what it can hold for a small child, and the wish that she need never let it go. She'll never quite be able to return to the life where she is little more than a ragamuffin tinker's child.
This was another amazing story and it won a "Davy Byrnes Award". Foster is a slim book well worth searching out. I am already looking forward to getting back to those short stories I started reading last year. Claire Keegan--another author to look for!