Too Irishy for its own good

Foster by Claire Keegan 2010. French title : Les trois lumières.

I bought this book on a whim, in French, something I tried to avoid when it’s Anglophone literature but sometimes I’m just too lazy to read in English.

Keegan_3_lumièresFoster is a very short book (around 80 pages) and is narrated by a child. It’s hard to say when it is set, probably before the 1970s. Her father drives her to a foreign house to spend the summer with relatives she’s never seen. The girl arrives at the house, is quickly left behind by her thoughtless father. We soon understand that her mother is pregnant again, that she’s too tired with her pregnancy, the girl’s siblings and trying to make ends meet to take care of this quiet little girl. Her father seems to be lazy, spending more time gambling than working, leaving all the farm work to his wife. This little girl arrives in a childless household and is welcomed by kind and caring foster parents. They are quite silent, willing to take care of her and she progressively adapts to her new surroundings.

Foster is a lovely book, delicate in its way of unravelling dramas and describing the bond this little girl creates with this couple. I enjoyed the descriptions of the countryside near the ocean. It’s lovely but a bit too smooth and not exactly predictable, but a bit clichéd and déjà vu. How can I explain this. First the style is too polished and even if it’s good and flowing it’s not that creative. I imagine that the translation (Belgian or Swiss, probably, I spotted a septante instead of soixante-dix, somewhere) is faithful and reflects Claire Keegan’s style.

Second, it reminded me of a comment Caroline left when I wrote about True Believers by Joseph O’Connor. She wrote “I think he writes well but some people would argue that they hate exactly this poor people’e tales because it sounds so Irish cliché.”  I didn’t think this applied to O’Connor’s short stories but perhaps it does to Foster. Just read the first paragraph:

Early on a Sunday, after first Mass in Clonegal, my father, instead of taking me home drives deep into Wexford towards the coast where my mother’s people came from. It is a hot day, bright, with patches of shade and greenish, sudden light along the road. We pass through the village of Shillelagh where my father lost our red Shorthorn in a game of forty-five, and on past the mart in Carnew where the man who won the heifer sold her shortly afterwards. My father throws his hat on the passenger seat, winds down the window, and smokes.

So we have a tired and respectful mother married to a useless man who spends the family’s money gambling, lets his pregnant wife organize farm work and housework and can’t even keep his hands off her to avoid another pregnancy since contraception isn’t an option. They live on the edge of poverty, the father doesn’t do anything at home and the mother is too overwhelmed with everything to take care of her children the way they deserve. The other couple has also lived through a traumatic experience.

I think this is too much: too much misery in a book kills compassion. I have the same feeling as when I read Hidden Lives by Sylvie Germain. The story has been seen before in a way, and well, it’s a nice read but I don’t think it’ll stay with me. If I were Irish, I’d be a bit irritated that it fosters the expected clichés about Ireland. I preferred Joseph O’Connor; his characters sounded real.

This book has glowing reviews like here or here at Delphine’s Books and More; or with reservations like here at Savidge Reads

  1. March 28, 2013 at 1:54 am

    Jesus and Mary preserve me from Irish literary miserabilism. Can we not have a little noir, or a comedy perhaps? Must it always be so fecking gloomy?


    • March 28, 2013 at 2:19 am

      I should probably mention that I do have immediate Irish family. I’m just tired of so much Irish fiction being beautifully written laments.


      • March 28, 2013 at 9:24 am

        Here it’s not that it’s teary but that she had to picture this social context.


    • March 28, 2013 at 9:23 am

      Maybe we will if you ask the Holy Spirit to give a hand to Jesus and Mary. 🙂


    • March 28, 2013 at 4:04 pm

      Irish crime is excellent though–I can think of many examples: Ken Bruen, Adrian McKinty.
      I’ll add though, that it must not be that easy to move beyond the dominance of religion and its interference in the personal lives of the Irish. (thinking birth control or the lack of here)


      • March 28, 2013 at 8:12 pm

        I liked the Ken Bruen I read.

        I know a committed Catholic of Italian origin who keeps saying “The Pope can say what he wants, I’ll do what I want, he has nothing to do with religion”. Although she was born in 1928 and had her children before contraception was legal, she only had two children…


        • April 1, 2013 at 4:53 pm

          Ken Bruen’s crime novels are incredibly good.

          Yes I know catholics who felt the same way, but sometimes I see a $$ connection to that thinking.


          • April 1, 2013 at 5:02 pm

            From what I read in books (and saw in films like The Bothers McMullen by Edward Burns) Catholicism seems different in America than in France.


  2. March 28, 2013 at 8:54 am

    It is strange beacause it is not miserability that remains from that book to me (maybe because I’ve read much worse about Ireland). It didn’t sound that cliché to me. Anyway, the writing in French seemed a little too simple, I agree.


    • March 28, 2013 at 9:36 am

      Well it’s not Angela’s Ashes, tear wise. The most important part of the story is the bond between the girl and the foster family. Claire Keegan didn’t need to add social misery to write this story. This little girl could have a loving mother stuck in bed for her pregnancy, an executive father who couldn’t take care of her while school is off the whole summer and this little girl would be spending her summer with these relatives as well and the rest could have been developed without indulging in Irish cliches.

      This reminds me of films set in the Nord Pas de Calais, like La vie de Jesus. They always have to scene idiots and social misery, never how fun it can be to live in Lille.

      Btw, I remember now why this story sounded familiar: there’s this film with Anemone and Bohringer and they have a boy over for the summer. Le grand chemin, that’s it.


  3. March 28, 2013 at 8:04 pm

    You might enjoy Flann O’Brien’s “The Poor Mouth,” a very funny parody of the miserable school of Irish literature.

    By the way, I was just in Buenos Aires; you’ll be glad to know that Mafalda is as popular as ever. You can even visit her statue, near the building where Quino lived…


    • March 28, 2013 at 8:14 pm

      I have At Swim-To-Birds at home, I’ll read this one first.

      I know there’s a Mafalda wall in the underground in Buenos Aires. I’d love to visit Argentina. Do you have a picture of her statue?


  4. March 29, 2013 at 9:43 am

    The name sounds familiar. I think I’ve read one of her short stories last year.
    Maybe it depends how a book is written whether we can accept that once more, there’s Irish miserabilism – as Max calls it. You didn’t think her writing was all that comleeing, it seems. On the other hand, if so many write such stories, and I’ve read memoirs too (not Angela’s Ashes though), it just means there are so many Irish lives like this.
    It’s just strange that not many writers want to break free. John Banville may be an exception but I have only read one of his novels.


    • March 29, 2013 at 9:28 pm

      If you can’t remember if you’ve read her, it’s not a good sign.
      What’s comleeing?
      I never said that what she wrote didn’t exist. I’m disappointed that she uses this in her plot. You’d expect young writers to move on. I feel the same way about new books set in Paris during the Occupation.
      I haven’t read Banville; he sounds too difficult for me.


      • March 30, 2013 at 8:07 am

        Comleeing? I have no clue how that ended up in my comment. What utter nonsense. Compelling was what I wanted to write. I’m sorry, I really have to read before pressing the reply button.


        • March 30, 2013 at 10:21 am

          Sometimes I wonder what Andre Breton would do with automatic correction of cell phones and other electronic devices. There are endless possibilities of funny writing, especially when you type in a language and have the automatic spelling in another language.


  5. March 29, 2013 at 10:26 pm

    Have you tried Colm Toibin Emma? I reviewed his Brooklyn at mine, and I’ve loved others of his such as his first, The Heather Blazing. He’s an elegant writer, he has a beautiful style. I’m a reasonably big fan.

    Haven’t read Banville yet. Interestingly he also writes crime, under another name but he’s open that it’s him. I don’t have the impression he’s that difficult, he’s not high Modernist or anything, but I can’t swear to that not having read him. Toibin I know is accessible, and yet at the same time exceptionally good. An interesting combo, and hard to pull off.


    • March 29, 2013 at 10:32 pm

      I haven’t tried Toibin yet but I remember your review and it’s on my wish list. I got Troubles after reading your review and I want to read this one first.

      I must have read a review of one of Banville’s books somewhere (Lisa’s blog?) and I have in mind that the language was difficult (unknown words, long sentences) but perhaps my English has improved since.


      • March 29, 2013 at 11:20 pm

        Troubles is brilliant.

        Actually, on reflection, that description of Banville does sound like some I’ve heard. I plan to read his The Infinities, or The Sea, at some point so I guess I’ll find out then how challenging he actually is and can pass on the news.


        • March 30, 2013 at 10:19 am

          I’ll read your review, then


    • leroyhunter
      April 2, 2013 at 3:01 pm

      Banville isn’t High Modernist; he’s Self-Consciously An Artist.

      I’ve abandoned a couple by him (years ago) but recently read one of his biggest early (ie pre-Booker) successes (The Book of Evidence) and thought it very good.


      • April 2, 2013 at 9:44 pm

        Excellent first line, that made me Laugh, with a capital L.
        I’m definitely waiting for Max’s review to try Banville.


  6. Brian Joseph
    April 1, 2013 at 11:49 am

    Very thoughtful commentary Emma.

    I tend to hate clichés in writing. Though I never thought that a book conveyed too much misery. Sadly a huge imbalance of misery is sometimes true in real life and I feel that at least sometimes writers need to express that.


    • April 1, 2013 at 4:25 pm

      It’s not that much about clichés. It’s more disappointing that she needed to use this for her story. She could have avoided it and found another reason to have this little girl spending the summer with this couple.


  7. leroyhunter
    April 2, 2013 at 2:59 pm

    Interesting discussion. There’s a whole swathe of Irish writing I avoid like the plague, maybe unfairly, but I prefer different horizons. Besides, I can’t imagine anyone has written more clearly or powerfully about the claustrophobia of Irish society in the 20th century then John McGahern, so I don’t feel the need to look beyond him for this broad *type* of writing.


    • April 2, 2013 at 9:43 pm

      I’m glad to read your reaction to this entry.
      I understand you and I’d rather read about the Ireland I caught a glimpse of last summer (that was Tana French, in a way) than about that.


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