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)