By Simon Demetriou
When the youthful narrator of Claire Keegan’s newly re-released novella describes the moment that Dave Kinsella, her temporary foster father, ‘puts his arms around me and gathers me into them as though I were his’, the interaction is made more poignant by the girl’s previous realisation that ‘my father has never once held my hand’. The question, therefore, is: in a situation where one man provides paternal care, another only genes, who deserves the appellation ‘father’? To whom and with whom do we, and should we, belong?
Belonging and becoming are at the heart of Keegan’s story about an unnamed girl being fostered by relatives she has only met when ‘in the pram’. On the day she is dropped off at the Kinsellas’ home, she feels herself ‘in a spot where I can neither be what I always am nor turn into what I could be’. As time unfolds, the reader is swept along by the efflorescence of the narrator through the relationship with her foster parents, who take the time to put the girl first, to provide her with basic experiences that swell with loving significance. Take, for example, the girl’s trip to the Kinsellas’ well, where she first sees herself ‘not as I was when I arrived’, and while holding Mrs Kinsella’s hand on the way back, has a moment of jarring bitter-sweetness that characterises the clash between the girl’s past and her present, and so characterises Keegan’s entire book: ‘I try to remember another time when I felt like this and am sad because I can’t remember a time and happy, too, because I cannot.’
The miracle of this tiny book is that the characters emerge with such force and generosity. Dave Kinsella, in particular, rises from the pages as a paragon of love’s dignity, from the boyish encouragement he provides for his foster-daughter’s gifts as a runner, to the words he utters to her shortly before the embrace with which this review opens: ‘You don’t ever have to say anything… Always remember that as a thing you need never do.’
As the narrator remarks of the Kinsellas’ farm, ‘this is a different type of house. Here there is room, and time to think.’ Once more, the bitter-sweetness comes from the fact that we wish that no such difference could be found, that all children were given these necessary, simple conditions. I am moved just revisiting the book to write this review, and I defy anybody to experience the ending of Foster – as you all should – without being touched by the realisation that biology is an inadequate tool to define family.