Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan – #NovNov22

I hadn’t really considered reading this book until my post on the HWA Crown Awards for Historical Fiction, when several of you commented that you had read and loved it. Around the same time, it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and again I saw a lot of praise for it, so when I saw how short it was (128 pages in the edition pictured here) I thought I would give it a try for this year’s Novellas in November.

Small Things Like These is set in a small town in Ireland during the winter of 1985. The weather has turned cold and frosty and Bill Furlong, coal and timber merchant, finds his deliveries very much in demand, with customers desperate to heat their homes. Seeing how his friends and neighbours are struggling, Bill knows how lucky he is to have his own business and to be happily married with five lovely children.

Just before Christmas, Bill delivers coal to the local convent and discovers a girl locked in the coal shed, worrying about her hungry baby. Bill is left greatly disturbed by this encounter, particularly as he himself was the child of a single mother and if it hadn’t been for the kindness of his mother’s employer who helped to care for them both, they might also have been sent to a convent. His wife, Eileen, advises him not to get involved, but Bill continues to feel uneasy about the girls working in the convent laundry and the way the nuns are treating them. He knows he will eventually have to make a decision – but what will it be?

This is a quiet but powerful story, with the details of daily life in a small Irish community beautifully described. It didn’t feel like the 1980s to me, though – if I hadn’t known I would have thought it was set at least a few decades earlier. Maybe that was intentional, as some stories really are timeless. Considering how short the book is, Bill’s character is fully developed and his emotional dilemma is portrayed in depth.

Before reading this book, I had never read anything about the Magdalene Laundries, which were run by convents and were really homes for unmarried mothers and ‘fallen women’. There were allegations of women being beaten, punished and treated as slaves and although the last of these laundries closed in 1996, the Irish government didn’t issue an apology until 2013. Through Bill Furlong’s story Keegan explores the question of complicity and whether by staying silent when we know something is wrong we can be held partly responsible. This aspect of the book reminds me of A History of Loneliness by John Boyne, which looks at another scandal within the Catholic Church.

Not for the first time, though, I’ve come to the end of a hugely popular book feeling that although I liked it and found a lot to admire, I didn’t manage to love it the way everyone else did. In this case I think I just wanted a little bit more. It ended quite abruptly just as I was getting really interested in it and I would have liked to have known what happened to the characters next. I’m sure other readers will have thought it was the perfect length and ended in exactly the right place! Still, I’m looking forward to reading more by Claire Keegan and will think about reading Foster for next year’s Novellas in November.

16 thoughts on “Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan – #NovNov22

  1. Sandra says:

    Helen, it’s interesting that you felt you wanted more at the end. I quite see why. Like many others, I loved it, as much for the beauty of the prose and the skill in transporting me into a world so deeply in so few words, as for the incisiveness of the portrayal of the town’s complicity and the reasons for it.
    Perhaps had she added more, the power of the message in the book – complicity and how we turn away from atrocities – might have been missed. The political aspect would have been diluted and the book would have become more about family dynamics. All the same, I would love to know what happened next! Like you, I plan to read more from Claire Keegan.

    • margaret21 says:

      Sandra, you said very much what I would like to have said. Much as it would have been interesting to know more about the family, the book’s message was strong, and this book has stayed with me since I read it – some time ago now.

      • Helen says:

        I’m sure you’re both right and the book would have had less impact if it hadn’t ended where it did. My personal preference is for longer novels with more complete plots, but even so I could appreciate the beauty of Claire Keegan’s writing and will look for more of her books.

  2. Margaret says:

    I love Claire Keegan’s style of writing but I too wanted to know more – what happened next? It could probably have benefited by being a longer book. Whereas with Foster, the ending is ambiguous, but for me it’s a good ending. And although I love both I prefer Foster.

  3. jekc says:

    I had my eye on this novel for the same reason as you so it’s interesting to read your comments. I felt much the same as you after I’d read The Essex Serpent and couldn’t quite understand why it was so well regarded. Not bad in any way, just not THAT good!

    • Helen says:

      I enjoyed The Essex Serpent but it’s not a book that made much impression on me and I can barely remember it now. I’m always wary of books that get a lot of hype as they don’t always live up to it.

  4. mallikabooks15 says:

    I haven’t read this yet but the Magdalen laundries did come up in another book I read and were both heart breaking and horrifying. I do mean to read this sometime as also Foster. It’ll be interesting to see how I react to both.

    • Helen says:

      I didn’t know anything about the Magdalen laundries until I read this book, so I found it quite shocking. I’m looking forward to reading Foster now. I hope you like both books.

  5. Lisa of Hopewell says:

    I like your mention of the “other” scandal. For this is one is about the “girls” only scandal. [Yes, some girls were certainly affected by the other one]. Good review. I enjoyed this little book.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed this one! I couldn’t help being reminded of that other scandal, particularly as the two authors explore the same themes of complicity and blame.

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