Author: Claire Keegan
Published: October 2021 by Faber & Faber
Category: Historical Fiction, Irish Fiction, Novella
It is 1985, in an Irish town. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, faces into his busiest season. As he does the rounds, he feels the past rising up to meet him – and encounters the complicit silences of a people controlled by the Church.
Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, was born in 1946 of a young single mother who worked as a domestic for Mrs Wilson, a wealthy Protestant widow. Bill’s mother’s family wanted nothing to do with her but Mrs Wilson, a kind woman, let them both continue living with her and took young Bill under her wing when his mother died.
The story is set in New Ross, County Wexford. Bill worked his way up to owning his own business and is preparing for his busiest season in the lead up to Christmas. He lives with his wife and five daughters and I enjoyed reading about their everyday life, the atmosphere of happy domesticity, and how proud of his family Bill was.
Sometimes Furlong, seeing his girls going through the small things which needed to be done — genuflecting in the chapel or thanking a shop-keeper for the change — felt a deep, private joy that these children were his own.
Bill knows he has more than a lot of folk and is grateful, even as he sometimes worries about his life going nowhere during sleepless nights. He’s always ready to lend a hand out of kindness whether it’s small thing like offering a lift when it’s raining or something more serious. It was during a delivery to the nearby convent, run as a Magdalen laundry, that he witnesses something he can’t in all conscience ignore, despite his wife’s pleas for him to forget what he saw. She was of the mind that it had nothing to do with them and there was nothing they could do about it.
‘Isn’t it a good job Mrs Wilson didn’t share your ideas?’ Furlong looked at her. ‘Where would my mother have gone? Where would I be now?’
Very descriptive, atmospheric and concise prose brings the cold, wintery Irish town to life, along with the characters, particularly Bill. This is a not so long ago time when the church was all powerful in Ireland and people were afraid or unwilling to speak out against the abuse happening on their doorstep, preferring to tolerate it, they were nuns after all, and perhaps even pretend it wasn’t happening.
Perceptive, compelling and moving, Small Things Like These is written beautifully and drew me in immediately. The parallels between Bill’s upbringing and treatment—good and bad—by a similar community gives him the ability to judge the rights and wrongs of a situation and make decisions according to his own values, without being influenced by the thought of the condemnation he may face.
The author includes an excerpt from ‘The Proclamation of the Irish Republic’ written in 1916 and for all that it reads ‘guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens’, and also that it determines to ‘cherish all of the children of the nation equally,’ it fell far short of its promise.
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Claire Keegan was born in Wexford in 1968.
Her story collections are Antarctica (London, Faber and Faber, 1999/New York, Grove/Atlantic, 1999); Walk the Blue Fields (Faber and Faber, 2007/ Grove Press, Black Cat, 2008); and the single story Foster (Faber and Faber, 2010).
Her awards include The Francis MacManus Award; The William Trevor Prize; the Olive Cook Award; the Los Angeles Times Book of the Year; the Rooney Prize for Literature, and Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award 2009, judged by Richard Ford.
A member of Aosdána, she lives in Co. Wexford.