Set in the days leading to Christmas 1985, Claire Keegan’s second novel, Small Things Like These (Faber 2022), explores the relationship between personal values and society’s demands in New Ross, a small Irish town. Bill Furlong is a good father and husband, a self-made man in the timber business trying to support his wife and daughters through uncertain times.
Theirs is the kind of town where everyone knows everyone and Bill, born to an unwed woman and raised in a protestant household, has always felt like an outsider. Over the years, he has done his share to fit in and has managed to give his family a good status in the community: they go to Church, his daughters attend Catholic school and, this time of year, they are all involved in the town’s Christmas celebrations.
Keegan’s prose manages to bring New Ross to life with detailed descriptions of town life scenes: we accompany the Furlongs while they bake mince pies, put up the tree, walk down snowy, cobblestoned streets and shop for presents. We find ourselves in this cosy stupor when the narrative takes an ominous turn and Bill notices that some things are not quite right in this picture-postcard town. A timber delivery to the Good Shepherd Convent (whose nuns also run the school his daughters attend), leaves Bill dubious about whether the Sisters, whose authority and reputation in town is unquestioned, have the best interest of the girls they are supposed to take care of at heart.
While the rest of the town might turn a blind eye, Bill’s status as an outsider looking in makes it difficult for him to ignore what he knows is wrong, but speaking up might jeopardise what he has worked so hard for. “Was it possible to carry on along through all the years, the decades, through an entire life, without once being brave?”, he asks himself. His inner struggle while he navigates the intricate social and religious conventions of his community is described in direct and piercing sentences, small chapters and just over 100 pages that result in a complex mosaic of memories, family scenes and private reflections.
Awarded the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction 2022, Small Things Like These is a great example of how the personal is always political and how the seemingly small permeates the larger course of history. Although the Catholic Church’s crimes might not shock anyone today, the Magdalene laundries scandal in the eighties remains a painful episode in Irish history. But this is not a book about the Magdalene laundries, it is the story of a man, and that is one of the book’s many triumphs.
Small Things Like These stands out as a powerful and relevant tale of courage, one where the prose is as carefully crafted as the story: every sentence is charged with intention, not a word too many, not a word out of place. As with her previous work, Keegan is able to make extraordinary literature out of the ordinary.
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