Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 3, 2022

Small Things Like These, by Claire Keegan

A year after Cathy posted her enticing review of Claire Keegan’s novella Small Things Like These for Novellas in November 2021, I read it for Novellas in November 2022.  The book was shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize and the 2022 Rathbones Folio Prize, and won the 2022 Orwell Prize for Political Fiction.

Since Cathy’s review covers everything you need to know about the the Magdalene laundries which are the background to the novella, I’m going to focus on unpacking the title, and why I think the book won the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction.

All countries have shameful periods in their history.  Some are more egregious than others, it is true, but what matters is how the history is acknowledged, how redress is managed, and how steps are taken to prevent any recurrence.  Germany’s shameful period under the Nazis is an obvious example, but their postwar transformation is salutary.  Australia is currently embarking on coming to terms with its treatment of its First Nations with the implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Small Things Like These tackles a shameful period in Ireland’s internal history, its treatment of unmarried mothers, and Keegan’s powerful novella shows the importance of individuals stepping up and making a difference.  Her central character Bill Furlong — whose unmarried mother was the recipient of unusual kindness and acceptance — has by 1985 made a good life for himself despite being illegitimate in conservative Ireland.  Content with his family life, he’s a coal merchant who becomes aware of appalling cruelty to girls sequestered at the local convent.

To drive home the hypocrisy, Keegan makes subtle allusions to the spiritual signifiance of Christmas which is meant to be a time of hope.  Making a delivery during the Christmas rush, Furlong hears voices singing the carol ‘Adeste Fideles’.  He sees a falling star.  And a baby has been born.

When he let down the tail board and went to open the coal house door, the bolt was stiff with frost, and he had to ask himself if he had not turned into a man consigned to doorways, for did he not spend the best part of his life standing outside one or another, waiting for them to be opened.  As soon as he forced this bolt, he sensed something within but many a dog he’d found in a coal shed with no decent place to lie.  He couldn’t properly see and was obliged to go back to the lorry, for the torch.  When he shone it on what was there, he judged by what was on the floor, that the girl within had been there for longer than the night.

‘Christ,’ he said.

The only thing he thought to do was to take his coat off.  When he did, and went to put it round her, she cowered. (p.61)

I thought of the women in Iran, rising up to protest their oppression, after the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, imprisoned by the morality police for a minor breach of religious rules about wearing the hijab.  Her death was the spark, but it was individuals across the country who led the initial revolt.

Bill Furlong in Keegan’s novel is likewise confronted with injustice and cruelty imposed by an implacable, all-powerful religious regime.  Just like Iran’s theocracy,  the Catholic Church in Ireland mouthed religious reasons for its oppression of women and girls… and most people, including Furlong’s wife in the novel, turn a blind eye.

Furlong’s initial act of compassion fails.  It’s not enough to be kind unless something changes.  Furlong lets himself be stymied by the nuns’ mask of good manners and hospitality. Their interest in the future of his five daughters isn’t just a reminder that he’s in a small community where everyone knows what everyone else does.  It’s also a veiled threat that the girls’ enrolment in St Margaret’s next door isn’t guaranteed.

But the incident bothers him.  He knows, deep in his heart, that he’s been witness to a charade when the girl, cleaned up, is brought in and asked to explain how she came to be in the coal shed.

On Christmas Eve, doing the last of his rounds and receiving small gifts from people too poor to pay their account, Bill thinks about gulf between the spirit of Christmas and how it is practised.

People can be good, Furlong reminded himself, as he drove back to town; it was a matter of learning how to manage and balance the give-and-take in a way that let you get on with others as well as your own.  But as soon as the thought came to him, he knew the thought was privileged and wondered why he hadn’t given the sweets and other things he’d been gifted at some of the houses to the less well-off he had met in others.  Always, Christmas brought out the best and the worst in people.  (p.96)

At Christmas festivities at Kehoe’s pub, Mrs Kehoe asks about his ‘run-in’ with the nuns.  She wants him to be complicit.

‘Tis no affair of mine, you understand, but you know you’d want to watch over what you’d say about what’s there?’ (p.98)

She warns him about the power of the church, and he challenges it :

‘Take no offence, Bill,’ she said, touching his sleeve.  ‘Tis no business of mine, as I’ve said, but surely you must know these nuns have a finger in every pie.’

He stood back and faced her.  ‘Surely they’ve only as much power as we give them, Mrs Kehoe?’ (p.99)

The incident is smoothed over, but it confirms for him as he later ponders the girl’s plight, that the priests know all about what goes on at the convent too.

As in many other situations, self-preservation battles against courage. He is up against his wife, his community and the church of Ireland. And yet he acts.

A small thing?  Not really.


I read this book for Novellas in November Week one: Short Classics, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca at Bookish Beck,

Author: Claire Keegan
Title: Small Things Like These
Jacket design by Gretchen Mergenthaler, jacket illustration ‘Dublin Under Snow’ by Robert Gibbings
Publisher: Grove Press, 2021
ISBN: 9780802158741, hbk., 118 pages
Source: Bayside Library

 


Responses

  1. Excellent review as always Lisa. The title was so well chosen I thought. The steps people take to combat wrong doing or oppression can seem small in hindsight (like taking off your hijab) but at the time, they are huge leaps forward, involving considerable sacrifice or risk. Standing up for what is right is never a small step.

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    • Thank you Karen.
      This is the first time I’ve read Keegan and I’m amazed at her skill in rendering a complex situation in few words.

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      • I wonder if she will stick with the novella format in future. it will be interesting to watch her over the next few years, she is far more talented than Sally Rooney ….IMHO

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        • I’ve never read Rooney, I’ve never wanted to.

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  2. I read this recently. I like the size of the book so dainty and so powerful the story between the pages. The residue of these times continues so the respect for those who speak out is so important.

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    • Yes, I agree entirely.
      When I was about 8 or 9, my mother (an agnostic) took me to Midnight Mass. (Truth be told, it was because there was a Male Welsh Choir singing the carols that night). There were two pews of girls and young women sitting at the back, all wearing the same dreary grey-brown dresses. I was curious, and was told that they were ‘the bad girls’. I had no idea what this really meant until I was much older.

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      • I grew up in Glasgow in the 50’s and looking back recall how religion on both sides treated women and children. It put me off at a very young age and other than the singing which I enjoyed I remain unconvinced.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It’s strange, isn’t it? how almost all religions treat women and girls…
          *pause*
          Maybe it’s all of them. I can’t think of one that doesn’t.

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  3. I’ve just seen an excellent version of Waltzing Matilda about Mahsa Amini. Great post Lisa.

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  4. Great review, Lisa. I know you’re not really a short story fan but Keegan’s collection called Antarctica is exceptional. And do read her short story/novella Foster if you can get a chance. I think it’s published online, possibly on the New Yorker website. You should be able to find it if you Google it.

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    • Ah yes, I remember someone talking about Foster… and I found it, and then, truth be told, felt a bit overwhelmed by how many books had come in from the library, and so let it slip off my radar.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great review Lisa,. It’s no small thing to stand up to those cultural and social forces that seem to control the masses, especialy when it will have effects on your own life and family. Organised religion seems to be responsible for so many issues…

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  6. I really, really enjoyed reading this novella. I very much appreciate novellas if I don’t have a steady diet. They’re so condensed – packed – like condensed orange juice.

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    • LOL I’ve never even seen condensed orange juice, but I think I know what you mean… with this kind of elegant writing, you need to add to the essence of it, for yourself to get the full experience. You need to read between the lines. But the novella is constructed, like the COJ, so that you can do it.

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  7. I really want to read this, I keep expecting it to leap out of a charity shop at me, as surely everyone in my suburb has read it by now!

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    • LOL Liz, my copy came from the library, but I wouldn’t be parting with it if it were mine.

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  8. Lovely review Lisa, so glad you enjoyed it. It is so powerful for such a short book.

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    • Thanks, Cathy, it’s a perfect example of a novella IMO!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. […] Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan – Lisa at ANZ LitLovers […]

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