So starts a beguiling tale from one of Ireland’s finest writers. Garlanded with international awards for her two short story collections, the 42-year-old won the Davy Byrnes Award for a shortened version of this offering that was published in the New Yorker.
Foster is less than 90 pages long, but it makes for a subtly enlightening account of rural life. There’s a timeless feel to it. We see days pass through the eyes of the young narrator, and there’s authenticity there. Keegan clearly knows the territory; she is the youngest of a large Catholic farming family, brought up in Co Wicklow. A keen observer, the narrator notices the minutiae – seeing weeping willows, she remarks that they look sick. She is aware, too, of the nuances of the adults’ emotions. Sent away because her mother, pregnant again, is struggling to feed all her children, the girl, wondering if it’s going to be a boy or girl, is aware her mother wants neither.
Foster follows the girl through that long summer, as she becomes in tune to the rhythm of life with the couple. She relishes the quiet business of her days and soon forms a tentative bond with the woman.
When the couple take her shopping for clothes in Gorey, and then to a wake, a past secret is revealed which makes sense of the couple’s willingness to care for their charge. After this, the girl draws closer to the man; he helps her with her books, and takes her to the ocean. When it’s time for her to return home, her emotions are split. She wants to see her family, but knows she will miss the quiet affection of the couple.
On her return her mother eyes her knowingly and her sisters welcome her with caution. This is seamlessly atmospheric writing and it stays, always, true to the child’s perspective.