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Small in scope, Claire Keegan's 'Foster' packs an emotional wallop

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. "Foster" is a 2010 novella by Irish writer Claire Keegan with an unusual publishing history. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says the long wait for "Foster" to be available in book form in the U.S. is finally over. Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: In terms of productivity, the Irish writer Claire Keegan is the anti-Joyce Carol Oates. Since 1999, when her first short story collection "Antarctica" appeared, Keegan has published only one subsequent story collection and two novellas. But the accolades for her writing far outweigh its sparsity. Keegan's 2020 novella, for instance, called "Small Things Like These," was shortlisted for the Booker Prize at 116 pages, the slimmest work of fiction ever to be nominated. Size matters, but wallop matters more. So far, the only thing lengthy about Keegan's work is how long it's taken for "Foster," her first novella to be published in book form in the United States. "Foster" first appeared as a long short story in 2010 in The New Yorker, and then was published in Great Britain. It's already been canonized as one of the top 50 novels of the 21st century by the Times of London. Now, at last, Grove Press has published a standalone edition of "Foster" here. It's a classy hardback that's oddly bulked out at its end by the first two chapters of "Small Things Like These," the kind of teaser that's usually attached to the end of paperback thrillers. Then again, Keegan is a writer who revels in the suspense of the unspoken, the held breath. "Foster," in fact, ends on just such a petrified moment.

The events "Foster" chronicles are small in scope. One Sunday after Mass, a young girl, who remains nameless, tells us she's taken by her father to a far-off farm. The girl's mother is pregnant, and there are other children in the family, so she's sent off to live for the summer with strangers. My mother's people, she tells us, a couple called the Kinsellas. We readers only get the girl's limited perspective. None of the adults explains much to her, and the girl's father, especially, is a man of few words. The ones he does speak are cutting. Driving off from the farm, he bids farewell to his daughter by saying, try not to fall into the fire, you.

Fortunately, the Kinsellas, though reserved, are gentle. The woman, whose name we later learn is Edna, bathes the unkempt girl, gives her clean hand-me-downs to wear and teaches her how to do things. Together, they embark on a repetitive round of daily chores - pull rhubarb, make tarts, paint the skirting boards, take all the bedclothes out of the hot press and hoover out the spiderwebs. The girl begins to relax. Her reflexive flinching eases.

The austere style and measured pacing of "Foster" are perfect. We readers may wonder about the presence in a closet of those hand-me-down children's clothes. But another chore always awaits, deflecting attention. Occasionally, the news intrudes on this timeless round. One of the few markers that ties this tale to the early 1980s is the mention of the death of a hunger striker.

Weeks pass. Then the Kinsellas have to take the girl with them to a neighbor's wake. Recognizing that the crowded house with its kitchen centerpiece of an open casket is no place for the child, they gratefully accept when a woman they know named Mildred offers to bring the girl back to her house for a while. Mildred whisks the child away, and "Foster" arrives at the kind of signal moment that distinguishes much of Keegan's fiction; that is, a scene in which the cunning humiliate the kind.

The girl tells us that upon leaving the wake, Mildred strides on into a pace I can just about keep. And as soon as she rounds the bend, the questions start. She is eaten alive with curiosity. Which room did they put you into? Did Kinsella give you money? How much? Does she drink at night? Does he? Does she put butter or margarine in her pastry? The girl is frozen into fear and silence. Frustrated, nosy Mildred lashes out at her, saying, that must have been some stone they rolled back to find you.

Keegan has a sharp ear for mundane meanness, but she has an even keener appreciation for kindness and its complications. The girl must return home at the end of the summer to parents who haven't once been in contact. Is it a gift or a shattering cruelty to expose a child to a better life when that life may only be temporary? As Keegan knows, only the Mildreds of the world will have a ready answer to that and all the other moral questions this matchless novella raises.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Foster" by Claire Keegan. On tomorrow's show, we'll hear from Mel Brooks. He wrote and directed "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein," "High Anxiety" and "The Producers," which was adapted into a Broadway mega-hit that included the hilarious Busby Berkeley-style production number "Springtime For Hitler." His memoir has just been published in paperback. I hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN")

GENE WILDER: (As Dr. Frederick Frankenstein) Ladies and gentlemen, mesdames and monsieur, damen und herren, from what was once an inarticulate mass of lifeless tissues, may I now present a cultured, sophisticated man about town? Hit it. (Singing) If you're blue and you don't know where to go to, why don't you go where fashion sits?

PETER BOYLE: (As The Monster) Puttin' on the Ritz.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, singing) Different types who wear a day coat, pants with stripes and cutaway coat, perfect fits... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.