THE novel Small Things Like These is remarkable. In truth, it’s a novella: at 110 pages this is, in fact, a venture into long-form writing by Claire Keegan, an Irish writer renowned for her short stories. Yet it is a perfectly formed work of art: precise, poignant, and entirely complete. No wonder it was longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, and won the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction.
To the story, then. It is winter 1985. The main character is 39-year-old Bill Furlong, a coal merchant, who lives in the small town of New Ross, in County Wexford. He is married to Eileen; they have five daughters, to whom he is devoted. (“Sometimes Furlong, seeing the girls going through the small things which needed to be done — genuflecting in the chapel or thanking a shop-keeper for the change — felt a deep, private joy that these children were his own.”)
Bill has particular reason to count his blessings: “Furlong had come from nothing. Less than nothing, some might say.” His mother had fallen pregnant at the age of 16, while working as a domestic servant to Mrs Wilson, a Protestant widow who lived in the big house a few miles out of town. On learning of her condition, his mother’s family would have nothing more to do with her. But Mrs Wilson — “instead of giving his mother her walking papers” — provided both mother and baby a home and a living.
At school, Bill endured a degree of name-calling, but his connection with the big house offered some protection. After school, he worked his way steadily up at the coal-yard. (“He’d a head for business, was known for getting along, and could be relied upon, as he had developed good Protestant habits; was given to rising early and had no taste for drink.”)
As Christmas approaches, Bill’s wife and daughters are busy with preparations: making a Christmas cake, writing letters to Santa, seeing the lights switched on. Bill is busy doing his last-minute rounds, ensuring that no one is cold at Christmas.
His neighbours are in difficulties: shipyards are closing, factories are announcing redundancies, businesses are failing. People are hungry: he catches a schoolboy drinking the milk out of the cat’s bowl behind the priest’s house. Bill is a bit of a soft touch, extending credit, giving a little extra, because he knows that “it would be the easiest thing in the world to lose everything.”
At the edge of New Ross, there stands a “powerful looking” convent with a laundry attached. Rumours abound: the workers are “girls of low character” or “common, unmarried girls” sent away by their families.
But no one really knows. The appalling conditions come to light only when Bill stumbles across a girl in distress, locked away in the coal house. Her imprisonment is explained by the nuns as a game gone wrong, but, once inside the convent, Bill can’t help noticing other worrying signs: a young woman with a stye on her eye; another whose hair is roughly cut, “as though someone blind had taken to it with shears”; and the way in which the girls look at him “like they’d been scalded”.
The truth about the Magdalene laundries is now well known; in an endnote, the author explains that as many as 30,000 Irish women may have experienced their horrors. Unknown thousands of babies died or were given up for adoption.
© Frédéric StucinThe author Claire Keegan, an Irish writer
Presumably, in 1985, it was conceivable that people really didn’t know what was going on, right on their doorstep. The authority of the Roman Catholic Church was such that it was easier not to ask awkward questions. And it was a different world: it is worth remembering that 1985 was the first year when people in Ireland could buy condoms without a prescription.
The plot hinges on what Bill does in response to what he has uncovered. His neighbour warns him to keep quiet. Eileen, too, tells him to leave well alone. He opens a Christmas card from one of the nuns — an image of the flight into Egypt — only to find a £50 banknote inside.
We are clearly in A Christmas Carol territory — indeed, Bill himself has been reading Dickens. We observe him walking through the snowy streets, peering into other people’s houses, contemplating the lives of others and the tiny and not-so-tiny choices that we make every day. He remembers the daily kindness of Mrs Wilson: “Had it not been for her, his mother might very well have wound up in that place.” He walks “up the hill”, through the town, as if to Calvary.
And so to the crux of this exquisite book. “He found himself asking was there any point in being alive without helping one another? Was it possible to carry on along through all the years, the decades, through an entire life, without once being brave enough to go against what was there and yet call yourself a Christian and face yourself in the mirror?”
In the end, the choice that Bill makes is clear, although the consequences of his actions are less so. This is a book from which the reader emerges stunned to discover summer sunshine. It is haunting, tender, and quite devastatingly beautiful.
Sarah Meyrick is a novelist. Her latest novel is Joy and Felicity (Sacristy Press, 2021).
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan is published by Faber & Faber at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09); 978-0-571-36870-9.
SMALL THINGS LIKE THESE — SOME QUESTIONS
- On page 13, we read: “It was 1985, and the young people were emigrating, leaving for London and Boston, New York. A new airport had just opened at Knock, in Mayo. The Taoiseach had signed an agreement with Thatcher over The North, and the Unionists in Belfast were out marking with drums, protesting over Dublin having any say in their affairs.” How important is the political and social context to the story?
- “Lately he had begun to wonder what mattered, apart from Eileen and the girls. He was touching forty but didn’t feel himself to be getting anywhere or making any kind of headway and could not but sometimes wonder what the days were for.” What do you think has brought Bill to this crisis?
- Mrs Kehoe says to Bill: “Tis no affair if mine, you understand, but you know you’d want to watch over what you’d say about what’s there?” Do you think the community was complicit in what was going on at the convent?
- How important is Christmas to the plot?
- Bill remembers Mrs Wilson, and, in particular, “her daily kindnesses, of how she had corrected and encouraged him, of the small things she had said and done and had refused to do and say and what she must have known, the things which, when added up, amounted to a life.” Do you agree with this definition of what makes a life?
- At the end of the book, Bill believed “The worst was yet to come.” Was he right? What do you think happened next?
IN OUR next Book Club page, on 4 August, we will print extra information about our next book, The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles. It is published by Cornerstone at £9.99 (£8.99); 978-1-529-15764-2).
The Lincoln Highway is a classic American road-trip novel set in the 1950s. On release from a juvenile work camp, 18-year-old Emmett Watson decides to travel to California with his younger brother Billy on the highway of the book’s title. Stowed away in the trunk of the car are two former inmates. The travellers, in their quest for a better life, all have different aims. To accommodate everyone’s dreams, the ensuing ten-day journey ends up taking a different course. The story is told from the perspective of each of the characters. It is these authentic voices that add dramatic tension to the story’s plot line, always keeping the final destination unclear.
Amor Towles is an American novelist who lives in Manhattan. He received an MA in English from Stanford University, and, after 20 years as an investment banker, returned to writing full-time with his debut novel The Rules of Civility. His second novel was the bestselling A Gentleman in Moscow, which, the author says, “was inspired by his experience of staying at luxury hotels”. Following on from its international success, his eagerly awaited third novel, The Lincoln Highway, also hit the bestseller charts and was listed as one of Barack Obama’s top reads in 2021. All his novels have been translated into more than 30 languages.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
September: Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
October: Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen