“Something small and hard gathered in his throat then which he tried but felt unable to say or swallow.” Bill Furlong, the protagonist of Claire Keegan’s highly anticipated new novel, is the kind of man who lies awake at night reflecting on the small things. The year is 1985, the country gripped by recession. Furlong, a coal and timber merchant in New Ross, Wexford, has a wife and five daughters to support. Like the rest of the town, he has plenty of worries, but over the course of this short, masterful novel it is his concern for the welfare of strangers that sets him apart.
Furlong is a hero in the classical sense, flawed and afraid, but ultimately noble. He goes quietly about his business, in a way that will be familiar to fans of Keegan. The Wexford author's unsentimental, unshowy style seems a perfect fit for a story that pits one man against the power of the Catholic Church. It's a tale we think we know well. Magdalene laundries, the incarceration of women, babies stolen, or worse, the rights of so many thousands denied over decades. Small Things Like These brings a fresh and sensitive perspective to an awful period in our collective history. Detailed, insightful and written with striking economy of language, it gets the reader remarkably close to the experience of the character, recalling Faulkner's line about the best fiction being truer than fact.
Keegan captures a particular time and place, while also setting out the stakes. Furlong and his wife Eileen have just enough money to keep their family going
Set over a short time span – the busy weeks in the lead up to Christmas – with a linear narrative, the book opens big, like a 19th-century novel, inviting the reader into the world before tapering off to smaller, memorable details. We get the weather, the season, the name of the town, where “chimneys threw out smoke which fell away and drifted off in hairy, drawn-out strings”. Many of the chapters begin with an unusual image: “It was a December of crows.” The depiction of the town and townspeople is equally deft: the closed shipyard, redundancies at the fertiliser factory, the local florist boarded up. Hard times, occasionally brightened, such as the turning on of the Christmas lights and the local councillor “wearing his brasses over a Crombie coat”.
Keegan captures a particular time and place, while also setting out the stakes. Furlong and his wife Eileen have just enough money to keep their family going. Many of their customers can’t afford to settle accounts. The wealthier ones are a lifeline. The Christmas envelope from the Good Shepherd nuns, one of Furlong’s biggest accounts, is anticipated and appreciated. Eileen is a great character, not quite shrewish, but canny and practical, a mé-féin mentality that represents the community as a whole. Her motto? “Stay on the right side of people and solider on.” She tells her husband that it is “only people with no children that can afford to be careless,” a line that has stunning resonance in a book about the laundries.
Metaliterary references to Dickens and Walter Macken seem entirely fitting, the former in particular with his morality tales that encompass whole cities and towns
The trouble that Furlong faces is introduced incrementally, after we’ve gotten to know his world. His first meeting with the mother superior of the convent is all smoke and mirrors. The dialogue is full of tension and ice. The nun remarks on his daughter’s participation in the local choir: “She doesn’t look out of place.” The words that go unsaid linger.
To give away too many of the details of the cloistered world of the convent would spoil the plot, but even the way the nun refers to her charges speaks volumes. A girl who has had a bad night is allowed to be “left idle for today,” like a machine or computer in the modern lexicon. Elsewhere, Irish aphorisms add to the miserly backdrop: “The empty sack cannot stand… Keep the bad dog with you and the good dog will not bite.” Cumulatively, the effect is to show the silent complicity of a town, and the fear.
In Small Things Like These there are echoes of other great Irish writers such as John McGahern and William Trevor. There is, perhaps, also a nod to Mary Lavin's short story, Sarah, in the naming of one of the women. Other metaliterary references to Dickens and Walter Macken seem entirely fitting, the former in particular with his morality tales that encompass whole cities and towns.
Keegan’s short stories have won numerous awards and are translated into more than 20 languages. Foster, published in 2010, was named by the Times as one of the Top 50 novels to be published in the 21st century. To say that this new novel is long awaited is an understatement. To say that it doesn’t disappoint is another. Small Things Like These is a timely and powerful book that asks a deceptively simple question: “Why were the things that were closest so often the hardest to see?”