Foster by Claire Keegan


Review by Walter Cummins

While reading Claire Keegan’s impeccable novella, I couldn’t help thinking of the old saw about stray animals that wander into your yard: if you name it, you own it. Naming serves as a vital source of connection. The lack of a name counters involvement. Not knowing what to call people and animals is an ongoing dilemma for Keegan’s also unnamed child narrator, a girl bewildered by the circumstances of her young life. In her case, it’s not a choice of detachment but symptomatic of a lack of the ability to bond.

When the novella—set in County Wexford around 1980—begins, the girl is uprooted from the only home she has ever known, where she has existed among similarly unnamed siblings with another on its way, to have her father deposit her with her mother’s sister and her husband, the Kinsellas, a couple who will foster her.

No one has explained why she is there, how long she will be there, or what is expected of her in this new place, which she sees immediately is neater, cleaner, and more abundant than the home she came from. But her father has forgotten her clothing, and she has to be dressed in boy’s garments that don’t quite fit.

Almost immediately in this different setting, the child has an insight about her inability to know what to call people and even physical sensations: “Her hands are like my mother’s hands but there is something else in them too, something I have never felt before and have no name for. I feel at such a loss for words but this is a new place, and new words are needed.”

As welcoming are her aunt and uncle are, clearly good people, they are not the source of the words she needs. For example, when the Kinsella’s hound greets her and her uncle at his car, “It’s only now I realise I’ve not heard either one of them call him by his name.”

The girl does not ask the dog’s name, and in her thoughts she refers to her uncle as Kinsella, her aunt as Mrs. Kinsella, distancing references, because the girl–observant as she is—lacks an emotional connection with the world around her. Early on, she thinks: “Everything changes into something else, turns into some version of what it was before.”

But this man, Kinsella, is affectionate with her, and she does not know how to accept the differences between the world she has known and this new one she fails to understand: “Kinsella takes my hand in his. 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.”

Yet uncle and aunt, as warm as they are in their behavior toward the girl, still never call her by her name, although Kinsella comes to address her as “petal.”

Although the child is aware of her lack of emotional words, her narration is rich in detail as it describes the physical world she lives in, her surroundings, and her routine of activities. The girl sees clearly without a grasp of what it all means. Despite the keenness of her observations, her sensitivity to the nuances of sights and smells and textures, she is—until the last page of the novella—unable to feel the human realities behind the specifics:

We walk through into the heat of the kitchen where I am told to sit down, to make myself at home. Under the smell of baking there’s some disinfectant, some bleach. She lifts a rhubarb tart out of the oven and puts it on the bench to cool: syrup on the point of bubbling over, thin leaves of pastry baked into the crust. A cool draught from the door blows in, but here it is hot and still and clean. Tall ox-eyed daisies are still as the tall glass of water they are standing in. There is no sign, anywhere, of a child.

That lack of a child is crucial to the novella’s plot and the girl’s eventual understanding. Mrs. Kinsella, soon after the girl arrives, tells her, “‘There are no secrets in this house, do you hear?” The woman associates secrets with shame. And yet the Kinsellas do not—more likely, cannot—reveal the death of their son who drowned in the tank of “slurry water” chasing the dog, a creature Kinsella cannot bring himself to kill. Are they keeping a secret? Or do they lack the words. As Kinsella tells the girl, “Many’s the man lost much just because he missed a perfect opportunity to say nothing.” Sometimes words are inadequate.

Shortly before she is to be returned to her family, the new child born, the girl falls into the well but in her case is saved and survives. Her return is delayed by several days after a brief fever.

When her mother asks what happened at the Kinsellas’, the girl deliberately refuses to tell. She chooses to keep a secret: “’Nothing happened.’ This is my mother I am speaking to but I have learned enough, grown enough, to know that what happened is not something I need ever mention. It is my perfect opportunity to say nothing.”

Ironically, despite the initial emphasis on needing words, the girl has come to know there are times when keeping secret and silent is better. Yet the final word of the novella, the one she speaks to Kinsella, reveals a deep emotional connection, the first time she has ever given him a name for the world to hear.