I’ve gotten to an age where I’m starting to do some basic math on how many 400-pages-and-more books I have left in me to read. Faced with one highly regarded tome of 500 pages and two others of more or less equal interest at 250 pages each, my tendency in recent years has been to go with the latter, particularly when stretching the timeframe out to the 10 or 15 or more years I might reasonably hope to live (should I be so fortunate, every new day being its own blessing).
Sure, if I choose to limit my reading most all the time to books shorter than some self-imposed limit, I will miss out on countless enriching opportunities.
But the plethora of truly remarkable literature readily available today at every page count, from every corner of the world, pairs with my guaranteed mortality to tell me I am going to miss out on countless terrific opportunities no matter the length of the books I read the rest of my life.
Can’t read ’em all, unfortunately.
That being so, my inclination is to read as many books as I can, all the more increasing the chance I will stumble across works that speak to and move me in their brilliance.
Which is how it turned out the other day with “Foster,” an 87-page novella from my new literary hero, the Irish writer Claire Keegan, whose entire career makes a shambles of my under-400-pages-per book preference with a multi-award-winning, critically lauded output of just five books totaling barely 700 pages since her 1999 debut collection of short stories.
“Foster” is not at all atypical of that output in having initially required barely one hour of my life. Nor in the fact that it said and suggested so much with so few words that it left me using a good number of the hours it saved me in its brevity flipping back through the pages to address the one overarching question among the many others it left me with: “Just how did she do that?”
Keegan seems to know exactly what she’s up to in crafting little jewels of sentences in which every word has been buffed to reveal an expansive radiance, like waves pulsing onto a night beach under the moon.
“I do think no story has ever been read properly unless it’s read twice,” she told the British newspaper “The Guardian” in an interview last September. “So it’s a longer book, you see, than you think it is, because it needs to be read twice. Double the pages.”
(Sense of humor, too…)
Her own labors on behalf of those pages are obvious throughout “Foster,” which opens with an unnamed girl of indeterminate age (my guess: 7-8) riding in a car with her father after Sunday mass.
Instead of going home where an inexactly numbered gaggle of children including another soon to hatch (Irish, Catholic) are implied to have the house bursting at the seams and their parents’ attentions to them severely wanting, the girl and her father are headed to “this place belonging to the Kinsellas.”
The girl spends the ride lying on the back seat, idly noting the sky and crafting scenarios of just who “the Kinsellas” might be and what the life she is apparently headed for there might be like.
She soon begins to find out when they greet her and her father with kindness and calm, Mrs. Kinsella kissing her upon arrival, the men exchanging pleasantries about the weather before they all go inside for a meal.
During which we get a glimpse into the character of the father and the home the girl hails from when he follows talk of thirsty crops with: “Wasn’t it a great year for weather all the same. Never saw the like of it. I nearly split my head on the rafters pitching it in.”
Then the girl: “I wonder why my father lies about the hay. He is given to lying about things that would be nice, if they were true.”
After dinner, her father indulges his ritual smoke, stands to leave, accepts an armful of rhubarb the Mrs. cuts quickly from the yard, then walks outside to start the car and says only this, without touching his daughter upon leave-taking: “Try not to fall into the fire, you.”
She then asks us, “Why did he leave without so much as a good-bye, without even mentioning that he would come back for me?”
Keegan takes us through a young girl’s summer idyll in its remaining pages, unsure whether her father will ever return, those details, like so many others, unspoken.
Meanwhile, she learns day by day what it is to live in and for that day, their unhurried rhythms and rituals taking steady root as she blossoms under the watchful, caring eyes of this couple whose love for her is expressed in myriad, everyday ways, and whose own life together eventually reveals far more than we are privy to initially.
Besides her universally acclaimed brevity, Keegan’s other genius is in taking us into the inner perceptual world of a young girl, taking cues on her unfolding life with simple awareness, reminding us that the almost startling newness and discovery we see in infants as they take in more of the world with each blink does not turn off as that world broadens out evermore.
Reflecting near the tale’s end on her reading with Kinsella, she observes:
“At first, I struggled with some of the bigger words, but Kinsella kept his fingernail under each, patiently, until I guessed it or half-guessed it and then I did this by myself until I no longer needed to guess, and read on. It was like learning to ride the bike; I felt myself taking off, the freedom of going places I couldn’t have gone before, and it was easy.”
Indeed, most all the basic tasks of life we learn with difficulty at first become merely routine with experience, and years on, we can hardly remember or understand what it was that impeded us.
Except, perhaps, what it is to be and remain fully human and alive with the spirit of possibility and discovery underscoring our days. Strange how easily that can be dropped amidst the stresses and distractions that seep into our lives.
Fortunately, we have artists like Keegan to lead us back there, one artfully, briefly sketched word and scene at a time, leaving us plentiful additional time to mull their implications.
A minimally abridged 2010 version of “Foster” in The New Yorker should be available and enjoyable to read here. Better yet, buy five copies of the full-length American edition printed last year, spread the wealth and give at least four away as Christmas presents. Beats a fruit cake any day of the week, and will last at least as long…
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