Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan: ‘To get the best out of people, you must always treat them well’

Cover image for Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan It’s a mystery to me why I’ve not read anything by Claire Keegan before given my predilection for Irish writing, particularly as Cathy over at 746Books has spoken so highly of her work. Small Things Like These is the briefest of novellas, a mere 124 pages with a good deal of white space thrown in but, rather like Natasha Brown’s Assembly, it’s extraordinarily powerful. Set in 1985, it follows timber and coal merchant Bill Furlong who finds himself faced with a moral dilemma.

And then the nights came on and the frost took hold again, and blades of cold slid under doors and cut the knees off those few who still knelt to say the rosary

Bill has lived in New Ross all his life. His illegitimacy marks him out, still the subject of the odd covert sneer, but he’s done well for himself thanks to the generosity and kindness of his mother’s employer, Mrs Wilson, in whose house he grew up. Now in his forties, Bill is happily married to Eileen, the father of five daughters and running his own business. He’s a decent man, aware of the poverty in the town, quietly helping out where he can, knowing that he’s privileged. On the Sunday before Christmas he delivers a load to the local convent and makes a discovery he cannot find within himself to ignore despite the consequences. There’s long been gossip in the town about the young girls taken in for ‘training’ in the convent laundry, often pregnant when they arrive, but the people of New Ross know the power of the Church and look the other way. Life will be easier for Bill if he joins them but had it not been for Mrs Wilson he’s all too well aware of what would have happened to his own mother.

He took stock of her while she was counting out the notes; she put him in mind of a strong, spoiled pony who’d for too long been given her own way

Keegan tells her story from Bill’s perspective, a complex man still troubled by the lack of a father until a chance remark brings about a quiet epiphany, well aware that life would have been very different had it not been for his mother’s enlightened employer. Keegan quietly uncovers the cruelty practised in the convent and the complicity of a townspeople who understand the ruination that can be visited upon them if they voice concern. She includes a note elucidating the grim history of the Magdalen laundries, the last of which closed in 1996, juxtaposing it with an excerpt from the 1916 proclamation of the Irish Republic, allowing her readers to draw their own conclusions as she does throughout her novella. In its lyrical yet spare descriptions and in its empathetic compassion, her writing reminded me of both Colm Tóibín’s and John McGahern’s. It’s a story that’s been told before but that makes Keegan’s work no less remarkable in its acuity and power. An extraordinary book. Time to explore her backlist.

Faber & Faber: London 9780571368686 124 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley)

31 thoughts on “Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan: ‘To get the best out of people, you must always treat them well’”

  1. Just landed on my doorstep yesterday, looking forward to savouring it. I’ve only read ‘Walk the blue fields’ back in 2007, a short story collection, which I can also strongly recommend. She reminds me of McGahern more than any other writer. Can’t wait to read this.

  2. You’re on a roll with novellas! (Though I’m sure you didn’t need the excuse of #NovNov to pick them up.) I have this one on my Kindle and still hope to get to it this month. It seems just right for pre-Christmas.

  3. Pingback: Novellas in November (#NovNov) Begins! Leave Your Links Here | Bookish Beck

  4. Like you,I often appreciate Irish writing, in fact I’m reading an Irish nonfiction book at the moment. This sounds wonderful, Keegan is definitely a writer I should look out for.

  5. I liked this one a lot, too, Susan, but I couldn’t help feeling that I wanted more from it. It ends so abruptly and I wanted to know what happened to both characters after that final page.

    Also, my ebook edition was only 73 pages. I’m surprised yours was 120+

    1. I see what you mean although the decision and subsequent action were enough for me.

      I always lift the number of pages from the publisher’s website as proof copies so often vary from finished copies.

      1. That’s where I get my info from too… but Faber (annoyingly) never seems to list page numbers, so I had to go to Amazon UK, which list it at 73 pages. (I had originally listed mine as 120 but realised I had read it far too quickly for it to be that long and so revised it down.) I really need to see a physical copy to check… pagination is a particular bug bear of mine because so many publishers NEVER reveal this info and yet I make many of my decisions about whether to buy or read a book on its size. I’m sure many other people do too.

  6. While I love the sound Keegan’s prose style, I fear the novella’s focus on the Magdalene Laundries might be too distressing for me. (My mother was from Ireland, and while none of her family were personally affected by the Laundries, they knew of others who were.) Keegan’s backlist, on the other hand, might be more my thing, so I’ll be interested to hear if you try of her others.

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