In this edition of Marginalia, I become evangelical about two books I wish everyone would read.
Foster, Claire Keegan (2010)
What does it say about our culture that we have the phrase “hatchet job” to describe the ravage of a sharp mind and poison pen against books and movies that fail, and yet (to the best of my knowledge) we have no word for its opposite? We talk of writing in “glowing terms” and “heaping praise” and any number of other dead phrases (to borrow from the late Martin Amis), but the fact that we have no single shorthand like “hatchet job” for celebratory reviews must be telling of something. Whatever label we might give such a commendation, anything I have to say about Claire Keegan’s Fosterwould surely fall under its heading.
Foster is word-perfect, humanely told, and expertly crafted. As a story and as a piece of writing, Foster is as unadorned as it gets, and I marvelled on each page at how stripped away every sentence is. It’s as if Keegan is performing a magic trick or daredevil feat in which she removes layer upon layer while we wonder how little can remain and still have substance. Keegan’s sentences dazzle but never dance for attention.
We are dropped into the story just as the girl (unencumbered by a name) is dropped off by her father at the house of her aunt (“the woman”) and her uncle Kinsella. The girl will be staying with them for an indefinite period while her mother gives birth to another child. Somehow, the following months are unspooled over a mere eighty pages. We pass chronologically through the highlight reel of summer – no detours, no flashbacks, no subplots – and things come to a natural, though quietly devastating, end.
The summer described in Foster is one in which the girl is on the edge of growing up and understanding grown-ups. As she says on her first day with the Kinsellas, while her father lingers in their kitchen before finally leaving her, “I am in a spot where I can neither be what I always am nor turn into what I could be.” As is the storytelling tradition, it’s the out-of-the-ordinary experience she has over the course of the story that influences her development; unlike the vast majority of such stories, her journey will not be one of suffering but of discovering joy and love.
Foster’s sparseness is precisely why this approach works. A novel of even the average 300 pages would struggle to remain compelling without conflict. This is why stories of fostering and of children discovering the adult world are invariably conflict-driven, knowledge of which we bring to our expectations of what will happen to the girl in Foster. However, in these relatively few pages we have just enough space to expect the worst, have those expectations overturned, and to vicariously revel in the joy of discovering that these foster parents truly care for her, before it all comes to an end.
Don’t let me paint a picture of benign bliss, though. That would be dull, and Foster never is. While nothing bad happens to the girl, her internal world is tumultuous with the dissonant voices in her head and untamed emotions in her heart. Foster is optimistic about love and family, even with a child or with parents not your own, and yet it is never sentimental. Moments of real tenderness bubble to the summer-sultry surface, but are edged with the melancholy of nascent maturity – though, thankfully, never pricked with the pin of bathos.
For instance, late one night, Kinsella takes her out to a nearby coast she’s never seen before, and as they stroll, “Kinsella takes [her] hand in his”. It is a tender moment, but it brings with it conflicting feelings she struggles to make sense of. As soon as he takes her hand:
“I realise my father has never once held my hand, and some part of me wants to let go so I won’t have to feel this.”
In spite of its minimalism, Foster is never bare or empty. This “long short story” achieves as much as any 800-page epic, and it achieves far more than some of them. Keegan has expertly weeded out every non-essential element and left space for the story to bloom with greenery and grow pregnant with latent emotion.
The film adaptation made the sensible decision to retitle this The Quiet Girl, which underscores the importance in Keegan’s book of what is said and what is not said. Both become painfully, poignantly crucial in the final pages. Earlier in the book, Kinsella tells the girl, “Many’s the man lost much just because he missed a perfect opportunity to say nothing.” That said, I’d hate for any reader not to hear of Foster and so miss the opportunity to read it, so I had to speak up here.
The Writing School, Miranda France (2023)
“Writer Blake Morrison once quipped that there’s no word so narcissistic as ‘memoir’: it has ‘me’ and ‘moi’ in it.”
So reveals Miranda France in one of the many insights about other writers that flesh out her latest non-fiction book, The Writing School. Part narrative about a week spent teaching creative writing in a remote valley, part investigation into the workings of memory, part eulogy for the brother who committed suicide decades ago, The Writing School is entirely captivating. It’s her open-hearted and open-minded approach, which leads to her near-constant appeal to other writers, that belies the accusation of narcissism in life-writing.
The Writing School alternates between the week-long writing course and sections France titles “exercises” that recount her life. These sections are a net that closes in, page by page, on memories of her brother, within which she hopes to find an understanding of who he was – beyond her own pubescent view of him at the time – and why he ended his life. That understanding, along with any tidy endings or easy answers, remains elusive.
There is, for instance, a still-born conversation about AI and creativity that barely takes its first breath before it dies, and while I initially hoped for more on the topic, what more could really be said without writing an entire book on such a wide-ranging subject? Even then, its conclusions would be tentative and overturned as quickly as all the recent developments in AI have been emerging. France is clearly more interested in the question than the answer, and this is a gift. In a world that is too sure of what it knows, literature is our best firewall against unearned certainty, our most effective advocate of doubt and humility.
The questions that France raises are always generative rather than rhetorical, and frequently not the questions most others are asking. In her examination of the harm that might be done by writing about real people, she discusses the poet Elizabeth Bishop’s belief that the private life of a writer fuels their writing. France develops the provocative idea that one of the people that might be harmed by writing too explicitly about real life is the writer herself:
“Sometimes I wondered if it was dangerous to bring too much of your own life out into the light and not just because of the risk of harming others … You might end up a weaker writer, I thought, if you burned through that feul. You might lose power, like Samson post-haircut.”
It’s impossible not to wonder, in the light of this idea, what France has held back in her own account here of her brother, Richard, who died when France was a teenager. Whether she was protecting her fuel source, or her brother’s memory, or someone or something else, France has perfectly pitched the distance between the reader and Richard by not making more of her memories than she reasonably could (by, for instance, describing them with a level of unrealistic detail). She is honest about what she remembers, what she forgets, and even what she believed she remembers but is disproven by her diaries from the period. This left me with a feeling perhaps analogous to what France must feel – reaching out for a distant figure, at times getting close, but never fully making contact.
France never affects the world-weary cynicism that many others would plump for in describing the project of teaching creative writing. There is no wry, ironic detachment standing in (as it so often does lately) for real feeling. France recognises types and is aware of formulas; she recognises her students at the train station immediately, because they “radiated the mild anxiety that attends all residential courses”; she is even preemptively conscious of the place she will take in the writing school’s “hall of fame” of previous teachers. Yet she believes in what she is doing and in the singularity of her students, even as they enact certain “roles”.
I was reminded, while reading The Writing School, of David Foster Wallace’s conviction that tomorrow’s “literary rebels” will “dare somehow to back away from ironic watching” and will “treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions … with reverence and conviction”. In The Writing School, absent is the solipsism that characterises much of contemporary life-writing, especially that which is known as “autobiographical fiction”. Present is a rich sincerity that welcomes the reader in, rather than the ironic pose that demands the reader prove their postmodern street-cred. France questions the role of writing, its uses, and how valuable it can actually be, but she does so with the admirable conviction that such questions are worth asking.
There is also a physicality to France’s prose that anchors the abstract to the tangible, an enactment of the credo France sets out in a section where she champions the use of the mundane in writing, such as “the difficulty of walking a powerful dog, of administering a bed bath, of climbing up a broken escalator with no loss of dignity”. Referencing Philip Roth’s use of a glove factory in American Pastoral, France is bothered by the way beginner writers (and, I’d argue, the authors of a depressing list of contemporary novels I’ve recently read) “want to bypass the factory floor” and “jump straight to the soul, without seeing that souls don’t float free”.
“And soulful investigations can make for dull writing; emotions are not only hard to describe but boring to read about when isolated from the other experiences of life because, in fact, they never are isolated from those things.”
As with so many other moments in my reading of this book, I wanted to cry out, “Yes! This is it!” and insist whoever was nearby immediately start reading France’s book.
In The Writing School, France rejects easy categorisations and clichés, dancing with the lightness of her subtle prose around every expectation one might have of a book like this, and leaping from insight to insight, revelation to revelation. She makes it look easy, which is part of the charm of her book and testament to her skill as a writer. So, one more time: Yes! This is it! Go and read The Writing School.
Marginalia, plur. noun: “In getting my books, I have always been solicitous of an ample margin … for the facility it affords me of penciling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.” ~ Edgar Allan Poe