The two greatest living Irish short-story writers are William Trevor and Claire Keegan. Foster won the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award 2009 and was subsequently expanded for publication as a stand-alone story.
In his original study of the short story, The Lonely Voice, Frank O’Connor wrote that “the short story has never had a hero” but instead has what O’Connor called a “submerged population group,” dreaming always of escape.
The dream of escape in Foster is the dream of a small girl brought to stay on a farm belonging to her “mother’s people,” away from the benign neglect of her own parents. Over the months of her stay, the girl becomes closer to the married couple she’s staying with and learns of a secret that has eaten away at both of their lives.
There is a richness and deep lyricism to Keegan’s writing. I picture her aching over her choice of words and the order in which to put them. Her stories are delicate and they are exquisite. There is a quietness to them also. Such is its preciseness that Keegan’s writing gives the impression that if a word was misplaced or removed the entire story would lose its meaning and shatter – a fragility matched by the vulnerability of her characters’ thoughts. Early in Foster, the girl is greeted by “the woman” (she is never referred to by name):
‘The last time I saw you, you were in the pram,’ she says, and stands back, expecting an answer.
‘The pram’s broken.’
‘What happened at all?’
‘My brother used it for a wheelbarrow and the wheel fell off.’
She laughs and licks her thumb and wipes something off my face. I can feel her thumb, softer than my mother’s, wiping whatever it is away. When she looks at my clothes, I see my thin, cotton dress, my dusty sandals through her eyes. There’s a moment when neither one of us knows what to say. A queer, ripe breeze is crossing the yard.
Frank O’Connor was correct when he stated that someone can be a great novelist yet an inferior writer, but that a great storyteller cannot be so. I would argue that many attempts at the story are mere vignettes – ‘days out’ for the writer concerned, if you like – and therefore fail in their intent as stories, although they may be pleasant enough to read. I differentiate between deliberate and accidental vignettes, of course. Margaret Atwood’s vignettes are a fine and deliberate example of the form.
What Claire Keegan demonstrates is the ability, as Frank O’Connor described it, to combine exposition and development in a way that overcomes the challenge of time – that challenge being a frame of reference that can never be the totality of a human life but rather selective point of entry into that life. The difference between a great storyteller and a novelist masquerading as a storyteller is that the storyteller understands that narrative is mere pattern and that the pattern is human life as universally experienced, “nostalgia and disillusionment and a fresh nostalgia sharpened by experience.”
There can be no fantastical event in the story – no slaying of dragons, to put it simply – because the form doesn’t allow it. But neither is the short story restrictive. Each new generation of storyteller is not so tied to convention as to prevent them from writing anything fresh. O’Connor argued, correctly, that the story has no essential form, that the point of entry into a life is different each time and that the submerged population of one storyteller – Chekhov’s doctors and teachers, to give an example – differ vastly from the submerged population of another – Maupassant’s prostitutes, by contrast.
The shorter version of Foster appears on The New Yorker website. Claire Keegan’s collections of stories are Antarctica and Walk The Blue Fields. To mark the publication of Foster, Keegan gave an interesting interview to The Guardian.