Beauty, harshness, menace and the spine of steel worthy of high art

 

FICTION: EILEEN BATTERSBYreviews Foster, By Claire Keegan, Faber and Faber, 96pp. £6.99

A GREAT SHORT STORY says more than a novel; the genius of the finest short stories lies in what is left unsaid. The feel for the form of the Wicklow-born writer Claire Keegan is as unwavering as if she had first begun to sing opera in the mountains without ever having a music lesson. Her subversive stories are written with the sureness of touch possessed by only the most natural of musicians. The influences of her masters, William Trevor, John McGahern and, most intriguingly, Michael McLaverty, are evident, yet her stately, rhythmic prose, and its physicality, detached tone and assurance, are all her own. Publishers are reputed not to encourage short-story collections; novels are considered more commercially viable. Readers know that stories seduce, that a short story can outrun – and outlast – all but the greatest of novels.

Foster, Keegan’s winning entry for last year’s Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award, is a haunting, crafted narrative making superb use of the first-person voice and of an urgent present tense. It has beauty, harshness, menace and the spine of steel worthy of high art. In a tribute to its singularity it is being published solo, in Keegan’s revised, expanded version, by the British publisher Faber next month. This is rarely done. The last time such an honour was paid to a single short story the work was no less than Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, a love story of unnerving tragedy. In late 1998 that story – still Proulx’s finest to date – which had first appeared in the New Yorker, was published in the UK by Fourth Estate, in a solo 58-page volume, some six months before it appeared as part of Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories(1999).

Keegan’s prize-winning story – which, after winning its award, also appeared in the New Yorker,in February this year – is also about love; a child’s discovery of a nurturing love so intense it hurts. Her initial reaction is to let it go “so I won’t have to feel this”. Dispatched by her parents to relatives she has never met, the narrator, a wary young girl, realises when the man – who is her uncle, although this is never specified – takes her hand in his, “my father has never once held my hand, and some part of me wants Kinsella [the unspecified uncle] to let me go . . . 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.”

Her mother is about to have yet another baby, and one Sunday morning, instead of going home after first Mass, the girl is driven deep into Wexford by her father, a restless individual given to wild bets and easy lies. The young girl proves a natural narrator; she watches and listens and has clearly learned the value of saying nothing. Most of all, though, she relies on instinct, not information; she already knows far too much about domestic tension and long silences.

The two men exchange meaningless small talk. “It is something I am used to, this way men have of not talking: they like to kick a divot out of the grass with a boot heel, to slap the roof of a car before it takes off, to spit, to sit with their legs wide apart, as though they do not care.”

It is obvious that the narrator has never met her aunt before: “She is even taller than my mother with the same black hair but hers is cut tight like a helmet.” The woman comments: “The last time I saw you, you were in the pram.” This suggests everything Keegan wants us to know about a family distanced by old secrets and probable friction. Having lied about the hay he hasn’t taken in, the father eats his fill and “is anxious to light his fag and get away”. He leaves without any trace of affection. “Try not to fall into the fire, you,” is his casual parting shot to the narrator already aware that “this is a different type of house. Here there is room, and time to think”.

The couple are kind, united by a shadowy sorrow. Their care of the narrator introduces her to a love she has never experienced. Whereas his wife tends the child as if she were a flower or a tiny bird, John Kinsella is playful and imaginative. Having noticed she can run, he sets out to improve her speed, promising her she will become quicker at running to the mail box. “By the time you are ready for home you’ll be like a reindeer. There’ll not be a man in the parish will catch you without a long- handled net and a racing bike.”

A local death calls for a wake, and there the child becomes an object of curiosity. An insensitive neighbour can’t wait to quiz the narrator and in turn supplies shocking information about the death of another child. It is a daring sequence, and one in which Keegan exposes the nastiness of human nature at its most petty, as demonstrated by the judgmental neighbour who can’t even overlook the use of plastic rosary beads twined through a dead man’s fingers. Keegan evokes the sense of place in a countryside parched by hot sun as precisely as she conveys the bitterness of the inhabitants.

Fosteris a traditional Irish story, and the familiar tremor of outrage seethes beneath its surface, yet it could as easily have been set in Chekhov’s Russia or Maupassant’s rural France. “And so the days pass,” reports the narrator. “I keep waiting for something to happen, for the ease I feel to end . . . but each day follows on much like the one before.” She learns about trust and, above all, discovers the sensation of belonging.

There is no disputing that the greater the writing, the more may be confidently left unsaid. Keegan is a realist who has mastered describing the chaos of feeling. Humanity at its most vulnerable fills the silences in Foster, an unsentimental story that triumphs through a subtle ambivalence that stalks and shapes the emerging emotional intelligence of the narrator.

Where does the Irish short story stand in the slipstream of frenetic suburbanisation? How has it been affected by social change? Does McGahern’s influence endure? How important is the sustaining of a tradition? Does emotional power invariably outgun stylistic innovation and experimentation? Exactly how good is Claire Keegan? This wonderful story, as daring today as were the stories of Edna O’Brien on publication, goes a long way towards answering all of those questions.


Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times