By Roberta Silman
In Claire Keegan’s fiction, each sentence matters, and each, sometimes very ordinary, action has real consequences.
Two by Claire Keegan: Small Things Like These, Grove Press, 118 pages, $20. Foster, Grove Press, 92 pages, $20.
One of the most fascinating things about being a critic is watching how a writer matures. For example, in Virginia Woolf’s first two novels we saw that she knew how to write a novel, but there are few clues in that prose that she would become the writer of genius she was in Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. I had much the same feeling when reading these two new books by the Irish writer Claire Keegan. I had read an earlier book of stories — Antarctica — which showed talent but at times seemed contrived and often rushed.
Now, though, she has hit her stride.
In her 50s, she stands out among her contemporary compatriots who may be better known, such as Roddy Doyle or Maggie O’Farrell or Sally Rooney or Mary Costello. For me, her work seems more universal and her vision both wider and deeper. It may be because she has found a new form: the long short story in the tradition of “The Dead” by James Joyce or “Nights at the Alexandra” by William Trevor. Or by our own Henry James in “The Beast in the Jungle.” The need to tell something longer than can be encapsulated in a short story has led Keegan to slow down. You sense that a great deal of thinking has been done in preparation for the writing, with the result that each sentence matters, and each, sometimes very ordinary, action has real consequences. Thus, although they are small books, they hold a multitude of pleasures I did not expect.
Foster is the most recent (2022) and actually appeared in 2010 in a shorter form in the New Yorker. It became so widely read that Keegan decided to expand on the original story and thus we have this new telling about an unnamed young girl who comes to spend the summer with childless friends of her parents because her beleaguered mother is shortly to give birth to yet another child. In four lines of overheard conversation between the parents we know unequivocally where she came from:
How long should they keep her?
Can’t they keep her as long as they like?
Is that what I’ll say? my father said.
Say what you like. Sure isn’t it what you always do.
Thus begins this tale of a child learning that there is another way to live than the rag-tag existence led by her neglected siblings and weary mother and feckless father. As she and her Da and the Kinsellas, her new temporary parents, have tea before Da has to depart, she thinks, “Part of me wants my father to leave me here while another part of me wants him to take me back, to what I know. I am in a spot where I can neither be what I always am nor turn into what I could be.” But she is wrong, because it is exactly here, over the course of the summer, where she will begin the process of turning into what she can be. For the first time in her life she will be cherished. She will also uncover the secret that is the major mystery in a house where loss and love reign in equal parts.
The summer unfolds; she helps both John and Edna Kinsella with their chores, she goes to sleep to the sound of the easy laughter of adults playing cards — what I remember from my own childhood. She becomes a good runner because one of the rituals established is that John Kinsella times her as she dashes for the post each day. She will also be witness to a neighbor’s betrayal of the Kinsellas when that gossip reveals their past, and she will experience fear such as she has never known. Each moment creates a plot turn, but perhaps none is more memorable than the night Kinsella takes her out to the strand, just the two of them:
There’s a big moon shining on the yard, chalking our way into the lane and along the road. Kinsella takes my hand in his. As soon as he takes it, I realise my father has never once held my hand and some part of me wants Kinsella to let me go so I won’t have to feel this. 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.… Kinsella lets me loose and I race down the far side of the dune to the place where the black sea hisses up into loud, frothy waves. I run towards them as they back away and retreat, shrieking, when another crashes in. When Kinsella catches up, we take our shoes off. In places, we walk along with the edge of the sea clawing at the sand under our bare feet. In places, he leaves me to run. At one point, we go in until the water is up to his knees and he lifts me onto his shoulders.
Don’t be afraid!’ he says.
‘Don’t be afraid!’
And then, as they talk about events earlier in the day, he gives her advice that we know will guide her into the unknown future, advice she is probably too young to understand fully. But she will remember it as long as she lives:
‘You don’t ever have to say anything. Always remember that as a thing you need never do. Many’s the man lost much just because he missed a perfect opportunity to say nothing.’
Which she will do when questioned by her mother on her return home.
Some reviewers have postulated that the unnamed child in Foster is really a metaphor for the country of Ireland and its maturing during times of prosperity and loss. It may be. But on the more visceral level it is a superb story about a child blossoming and discovering that life, as bleak as it may sometimes seem, is also about possibilities.
That is also the major theme in Small Things Like These, which is the newest book. It was inspired by the stories of the Magdalen Laundries, but in a brilliant stroke Keegan creates a protagonist who is not one of the girls who suffered in those horrible circumstances, nor one of the brutal and powerful nuns who ruled over those girls. Instead she tells the story from the point of view of Bill Furlong, a man in his early 40s, who owns a coal business. He delivers coal daily as the season changes from October to Christmas and finds himself suddenly confronted, while making a delivery at the convent, with evidence of cruelty he has never dreamed he would witness. What he sees forces him to delve into his own somewhat ambiguous past, when all he knew was a single mother and the kind woman who took them both in — a Mrs. Wilson who saw that he was cared for after his mother’s early death and helped him become a person who could hold a good job and marry and have a family of his own.
When he tries to explain those feelings to Eileen, his wife and the mother of his five daughters, it goes like this:
‘If you want to get on in life, there’s things you have to ignore, so you can keep on.’
‘I’m not disagreeing with you, Eileen.’
‘Agree or disagree. You’re just soft-hearted, is all. Giving away what change is in your pocket and—’
‘What ails you tonight?’
‘Nothing, only what you don’t realise. Wasn’t it far from any hardship that you were reared.’
‘From what hardship, exactly?’
‘Well, there’s girls out there that get in trouble, that much you do know.’
The blow was cheap but it was the first he’d heard from her, in all their years together. Something small and hard gathered in his throat then which he tried but felt unable to voice or swallow. In the finish, he could neither swallow it down nor find any words to ease that had come between them.
I’d no call to say that to you, Bill,’ Eileen cooled. ‘But if we just mind what we have here and stay on the right side of people and soldier on, none of ours will ever have to endure the likes of what them girls go through. Those were put in there because they hadn’t a soul in this world to care for them. All their people did was leave them wild and then, when they got into trouble, they turned their backs. It’s only people with no children that can afford to be careless.’
‘But what if it was one of ours?’
‘This is the very thing I’m saying,’ she said, rising again. ’Tis not one of ours.’
‘Isn’t it a good job Mrs. Wilson didn’t share your ideas?’ Furlong looked at her. ‘Where would my mother have gone? Where would I be now?’
After that exchange we can feel Bill’s mind opening up. The weeks leading up to Christmas pass, he makes his deliveries, has exchanges with family and friends and neighbors. On a whim he goes back to the old Wilson home in an attempt to find Ned, the handyman who worked for Mrs. Wilson and who had helped bring him up. There he is told by the unfamiliar woman who opens the door that Ned has caught pneumonia and is convalescing in a home. However, when she remarks on his resemblance to the Wilson clan, Furlong feels his breath catch. He backs away from seeing the family and just asks to be remembered.
By Christmas Eve Furlong’s anger against what he knows is going on in the convent grows to the point that he misses first Mass and has to attend the second. After that he makes his way through the town, studying the shop windows. He remembers a jigsaw puzzle he was given as a child and goes into the puzzle store, only to learn that such big and difficult puzzles no longer exist. Finally he decides to get a haircut, which allows his mind to further “stray and roam.” After he lingers at the barber’s he picks up the shoes he has bought for Eileen for Christmas. Instead of going home, though, he continues to walk, almost in a trance. He finds himself at the convent and opens the coal-house door where he finds, as he suspected he would, the young girl who was locked in there before, “although the girl, this time, took his coat and seemed gladly to lean on him as he he led her out.” All he says is, “You’ll come home with me now, Sarah.”
They walk, make a stop so she can vomit, and continue towards home. He knows that “some part of him, whatever it could be called — was there any name for it? — was going wild” and that “he would pay for it but never once in his whole and unremarkable life had he known a happiness akin to this, not even when his infant girls were first placed in his arms…”
Our last glimpse of Furlong is him approaching his own door and thinking:
The worst was yet to come, he knew. Already he could feel a world of trouble waiting for him behind the next door, but the worst that could have happened was already behind him; the thing not done, which could have been — which he would have had to live with for the rest of his life. Whatever suffering he was now to meet was a long way from what the girl at his side had already endured, and might yet surpass. Climbing the street towards his own front door with the barefooted girl and the box of shoes, his fear more than outweighed every other feeling but in his foolish heart he not only hoped but legitimately believed that they would manage.
This is an exquisite story told in exquisite prose. In it, we sense a world troubled by the most essential kind of trouble. Yet, because of her great gifts, Claire Keegan has given us a tale that affirms life and gives us hope. And, even more important, she has created an unforgettable character whose courage can give us courage. This is a story that makes it clear that no act of bravery is ever futile and, by extension, we must each do our part, however small. Her moral message is timely, and our gratitude should be boundless.
Roberta Silman is the author of four novels, a short story collection and two children’s books. Her latest novel, Summer Lightning, will be released as a paperback, an ebook, and an audio book on October 6. Secrets and Shadows (Arts Fuse review), is in its second printing and is available on Amazon and at Campden Hill Books. It was chosen as one of the best Indie Books of 2018 by Kirkus and it is now available as an audio book from Alison Larkin Presents. A recipient of Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has reviewed for the New York Times and Boston Globe, and writes regularly for the Arts Fuse. More about her can be found at robertasilman.com and she can also be reached at email@example.com.