Book - Small Things Like These

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan book cover

Tony Cross is reading his way through the Booker Prize Longlist 2022. Today he is taking on Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan...

“It was a December of crows.”

Small Things Like These is a novella that through its main character, Bill Furlong, tells a story of Ireland’s Magdalene laundries. You can see this book as the tip of an emotional and political iceberg. An iceberg of cruelty, suffering, and cover-up. As Keegan says in her note on the text no one will every know the true number of women and girls who went through the system or the true number who lost their lives. Evidence is lost, destroyed or hidden.

Bill is a successful coal and timber merchant with a wife and five daughters. His mother was a domestic servant at the ‘big house’ and got pregnant. The father was unknown, but Mrs Wilson, a Protestant widow who lived in the big house protected her and Bill. Bill’s childhood was a difficult one. He’s portrayed as a kindly man. Perhaps too much of a soft touch for his wife. But it seems to me that Keegan is using Bill – and it is interesting that I want to call him Bill and not Furlong while I’m writing this review – to illustrate what being a Christian should be: a concern for the poor and a refusal to take the easy route when confronted by a crime. As opposed to the Church’s own cruelty and the Irish Republic’s refusal to deal with or confront the issues until far to late in the day.

The early part of the book barely touches upon the Convent, but once he has his first encounter with the girls there it begins to have an impact on Bill and then when he is delivering coal to the Convent just before Christmas, he finds a girl locked in the freezing coal cellar.

Keegan’s prose is clear and straightforward. She seems keen to tell this story without distracting fripperies. Bill’s own life is a counterpoint to the lives of those girls absorb and destroyed by the Magdalene system. He was looked after and loved, even if he got his share of bullying as a child because he had no father. I suspect it is no coincidence that he’s written as having only daughters.

It would have been easy I think for Keegan to have let anger overwhelm the book, but it seems to me important that the anger is implicit rather than explicit. There is no mighty confrontation between Bill and the Nuns. Barely a voice is raised. But Bill acts. He acts in accordance with his conscience, and he does the right thing when he knows that the easiest thing would have been to do nothing but that would have been the worst thing. The real sin.*

Keegan hasn’t wasted a word here. Another author might have expanded this into a 400-page novel with fiery confrontations and more information, but Keegan doesn’t do that because she doesn’t need to. She says what needs to be said and says it powerfully.

* I was reminded of Elie Wiesel’s quote, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”

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