Review by David Starkey
Claire Keegan’s novella Small Things Like These was released just before Christmas of last year. Set in a small Irish town during Christmas 1985, the book centers on a true act of Christian charity. One might almost imagine the novella becoming a classic of the season, if it weren’t for the fact that the book’s antagonists are the loathsome Magdalene Laundries, led in this instance by a very calculating Mother Superior. For those who have not seen Philomena, the Magdalene laundries essentially kidnapped young unmarried pregnant woman and forced them into something resembling slave labor. As Keegan notes in her Afterword, “It is not known how many girls and women were concealed, incarcerated and forced to labour in these institutions. Ten thousand is the modest figure; thirty thousand is probably more accurate.” The babies of these girls and women who were not adopted often died and were buried in unmarked graves. The laundries, Keegan points out, “were run and financed [until 1996] by the Catholic Church in concert with the Irish State.”
Reading Small Things Like These in July, one can’t help but see the book less as a Christmas story, and more an indictment of the brutal hypocrisy of the Magdalene laundries, which benefited enormously from the free labor they wrung from poor women who, without access to legal abortion, had few options once they became pregnant. Just as bad, if not worse, the novella suggests, was the cowardice of townspeople throughout Ireland who preferred to turn their backs on the hapless unwed mothers—many of whom, of course, had recently been their own neighbors—rather than face the wrath of the local Catholic clergy.
The hero of the novella is a man named Bill Furlong, the big-hearted owner of a coal yard. Furlong frequently gives winter fuel to those who cannot pay, which means that while he has plenty of customers, his business is not as thriving as it might be. Furlong is happily married to Eileen and they have five lively young daughters, whom both he and his wife protect fiercely. Exhausted though he usually is, Furlong lives a mostly satisfactory life until a visit to the convent sparks uncomfortable memories: his own mother was young and unwed, and if not for the kindness of a wealthy neighbor, both he and his mother would have suffered the injustices meted out by the nuns.
The book is brief, moving with the brisk pace of short story. Signs and wonders abound, though they are always subtle—“small things like these”—as when Furlong rounds a corner of the convent and comes “across a black cat eating from the carcass of a crow, licking her lips.” The third-person limited point of view perfectly suits the mood and action of the story: this is Furlong’s world and we see it through his eyes, though his vision is often much different than that of his neighbors.
Perhaps most commendable of all in this remarkable little book is its precise and imagistic prose. Every scene is carefully crafted; each detail is vivid and necessary. In one passage, for example, Furlong glimpses the interior of a neighbor woman’s home: “Her hair, which was neither brown nor red but the colour of cinnamon, fell almost to her waist, and her feet were bare. Behind her, a gas cooker was throwing rings of flame up under a kettle and saucepan, and three small children he recognized were sitting around the table with colouring books and a bag of raisins. The room smelled pleasantly of something familiar, which he could not name, or place.” Eloquent without being showy, this is the sort of description upon which literary reputations are made.
Small Things Like These is one of those books you can’t wait to tell your friends about. Reader, I recommend it without hesitation to you.