Claire Keegan has been acclaimed as the best short story writer of the younger generation of Irish writers. After the publication in 2007 of her second short story collection, Walk the Blue Fields, she was referred to in reviews as the successor to John McGahern.
There are similarities between her work and McGahern's -- she's from rural Wicklow instead of Leitrim but the precision and intensity with which she describes country life have echoes of the master. Even so, the comparison is an unfair burden to put on any young writer. She is very good -- and this new book devoted to a single short story proves that -- but it's much too early to say whether she will reach the level that McGahern achieved and maintained.
That said, this is a captivating short story. It's very unusual for a single story to be given a book of its own -- the critic Eileen Battersby says that the last time this was done was for Annie Proulx's short story Brokeback Mountain more than a decade ago. Now Faber has done it for Keegan's story, Foster, which won the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award last year.
The judge for that award, the American writer Richard Ford, said that this story is "a high wire act of uncommon narrative virtuosity" and that "it puts on display an imposing array of formal beauties at the service of a deep and profound talent". Which, if you can figure that out, is probably as over the top as the McGahern comparison.
Foster, like most of Keegan's short stories, shines like a jewel. But it is very much a traditional short story which is brilliant without being ground-breaking. Ford's lavish praise, quoted on the cover, may not do Keegan any favours since it raises expectations so high. This story is very good, but it's not as extraordinary as he suggests.
It's about a young girl from a struggling farm family in rural Ireland who spends a summer with better-off relatives on another farm. She's been sent away to lessen the burden on her strained mother who is pregnant yet again. The girl doesn't know when she will be going home. Her shifty, unreliable father who drives her there doesn't say when he will be back for her, or even say goodbye properly. At first uneasy in the house, the girl discovers a level of care, comfort and affection she has not experienced before. Slowly she blossoms ... and then she learns a secret that explains a great deal.
Keegan's description of the landscape, rural life, farmhouse interiors, the awkward silences, the sometimes bitter subtext beneath the pleasantries, is so good at times you put the book down to smile in recognition. Her summation of the way the men converse but don't really talk to each other is perfect (although the use of the word "divot" seems odd.)
Above all, this little book is worth reading for the portrayal of the girl, the narrator of the story, whose conflicting emotions are at once delightful and heart-breaking as her horizons widen and her understanding grows. Through her eyes we see the adult world in a new light.
Short stories are sometimes called gems. This one is as lyrical as poetry yet so concentrated it's a novel in miniature. A real jewel.