Contemporary Novellas: Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Following on from her elegiac novella Foster, Claire Keegan has again crafted a short, powerful narrative which thrums with a powerful emotional force.

Small Things Like These is dedicated to the women and children who were kept in the Magdalene laundries and confronts one of the most shameful periods in Ireland’s history. Operating from the 18th to the late 20th centuries, an estimated 10,000 girls and women — although 30,000 may be nearer the mark — who were deemed ‘fallen women’, were incarcerated and forced to labour. No one knows how many babies died in these laundries and homes, or how many were adopted, because most of the records were destroyed or made inaccessible. Ireland’s last Magdalene laundry only closed its doors in 1996 and these were institutions run by the Catholic Church in collusion with the Irish State. That Keegan explores these events with such sensitivity and clear-eyed perception is a striking achievement.

It is 1985, approaching Christmas, a time of recession in Ireland and Bill Furlong – a coal and timber merchant in the town of New Ross – is making the final fuel deliveries before the start of the Christmas festivities. Bill is happily married with five smart beloved daughters, but life hasn’t always been easy. His mother gave birth to him when she was a teenager and only for the kindness of a wealthy woman in town who took the two of them in, he knows that life could have turned out very differently for him.

One of Bill’s main clients is the local convent which also runs a laundry and ‘training school’ for girls, but it is in fact a mother and baby home. While delivering wood to see the convent through the Christmas period, Bill comes across a young girl, locked in a coal shed, who begs him to find out about her baby. Bill is then faced with a dilemma. Turn a blind eye to what he has seen, or risk exposing the convent and in turn causing problems for his daughters who attend the school as well as risking his own reputation. His wife begs him to leave well alone, but Bill is torn.

Was there any point in being alive without helping one another? Was it possible to carry on along through all the years, the decades, through an entire life, without once being brave enough to go against what was there?

Keegan is an acclaimed short story writer and it shows. She has a skill in conveying a great deal in very few words and despite the slim nature of Small Things Like These both Bill’s character and his emotional turmoil is rendered with a striking depth. What is most impressive about Keegan’s writing is that it is often what is left unsaid that gives her work its undeniable power and depth of emotion. This is a novella with no word out of place and Keegan trusts her reader to intuit what sits in the silences, just as her characters must.

Keegan paints a vivid picture of the particulars of small Irish communities, and she carefully exposes the web of complicity which exists within a community where such cruelties are allowed to continue unchallenged. The laundries existed for so long, not just because of the actions of those who ran and oversaw them, but also because so many people looked away, turned their eyes elsewhere because doing so was the easier option.

As the narrative progresses, and Bill faces the most important decision of his life, this shining gem of a novel builds to an almost heart-breaking conclusion which emphasises how small moments of love and connection sustain us and give our lives meaning.

Small Things Like These is as lyrical as poetry and has the depth of a full-length novel, yet it’s very brevity is what makes it so impressive. It is perfectly formed and perfectly executed. As a story of faith and hope, it explores how loss can be transformed into tenderness, and of how hope endures.

Almost unbearably poignant, Small Things Like These is a stunning achievement.

Irish Literature Novellas in November

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

36 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Lovely review Cathy. Thanks for bringing this story to our attention. Every country has it’s own shameful past. In Australia it’s the Stolen Generation but also the orphanages and work houses and foster homes where British children were sent to under the Home Children scheme up until the early 1990’s.

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  2. I find novellas pointless and annoying..unless they are in anthologies and still don’t take up too much space..Either extend your imagination and write a novel or cut out the excess and write a glorious short story.
    Been waiting to say this for a looking time….

    Like

  3. I’m glad you liked this one … I’m on the wait list for it. I have not read this author before. I’m curious about Foster too. I’m off to see what that one is about. thanks.

    Like

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