I picked up Claire Keegan’s novella ‘Small Things like These’ as I had read a Guardian article with the writer Sarah Moss naming it as one of her books of the year. I sat down with it and was immediately drawn into the story, finishing the text within one sitting.
Set in the months and weeks before Christmas 1985 Keegan draws with her words the onset of winter in the Irish town of New Ross. We perceive events through the perspective of Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant who is married to his wife Eileen. The couple have five daughters and live a reasonably comfortable existence. Although not yet 40 Bill develops a deepening sense of melancholy as he reflects on his current circumstances. On the one hand he feels fortunate to be financially secure in contrast to some of the poverty around him but also, he is conscious of how something as whimsical as fate has the potential to give but also the ability to take things quickly away, that all existence is precarious.
Born out of wedlock as a teenager, fate was kind to Bill in that he and his mother became the beneficiaries of a wealthy widow who took them in despite societal condemnation. Through hard work he was able to work his way up in the industry but now reflects on the meaningfulness of life in all its repetitiveness and mundanity.
On a delivery to the local convent Bill is witness to an horrific encounter which precedes an incredibly awkward and terrifying conversation with the Mother Superior. The danger and unsettlement that pervades the scene was incredibly powerful. The uncanny nature of the encounter had a visceral impact on me as a reader. The fictional setting, Keegan explains, was based on the real-life Magdalene Laundries in Ireland. Places where unwed ‘promiscuous’ girls were housed away from society. A place that should be filled with kindness, charity and compassion is inverted to be something more dangerous and threatening. Keegan draws attention to the devastation and impact these places had, not just on the girls and their families, but the also how the reverberations and consequences can still be felt by the country today.
Bill finds he has to act. We read with him his deliberation over whether it is best to just let things lie. The nuns hold huge sway and power in the local community and he and his family benefit from this low-key existence. These deliberations are what make him a universal and relatable character. It reminded me of a quotation attributed to John Stuart Mill, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for the good men to do nothing.’ Bill is a good man and the writer by extension is asking us to reflect on the small things we can do to tackle that which is wrong despite the consequences we may face. This book is incredibly beautiful and poignant. One I will return to time and time again.