Small Things Like These is Claire Keegan’s 2021 novella, long-listed for the 2022 Booker Prize. It’s set in a small Irish town, during the build up to Christmas 1985. Bill Furlong, who runs a coal merchant business, faces his busiest time of year. Going about his duties, with characteristic diligence and friendliness, the daily round cannot stop him pondering on his wider situation and life direction. He recalls a childhood as the illegitimate child of a servant who worked in a big house in the area. Fortunately for Bill, the lady of the house, was a decent, kindly person who looked after both young mother and her child.
As Christmas approaches, Bill comes to realise that things could have been very different for him and his mother. He delivers coal to a convent where an order of nuns run a ‘Magdalen laundry’. Although it’s not exactly clear in the book what this institution is all about, it seems to be a place of confinement and forced labour for children and single mothers. I did some googling – discovering a tragic history of organisations originally set up in Britain in the eighteenth century as places of correction for ‘fallen women’ – that is prostitutes. In Ireland, the laundries, run by the Catholic Church, saw an increasing demand for their cheap service, and for the workers to provide it. This drove a widening of the original definition of ‘fallen women’. Eventually, any woman who might challenge Irish notions of religious morality was fair game. Single mothers and their children often ended up within the brutal, secretive confines of a Magdalen laundry. Thousands died. This was the situation as Bill delivers his coal to the convent, a few days before Christmas 1985.
Bill discovers a girl, in a terrible state, locked in a coal bunker, which the nuns explain as hide and seek gone wrong. It doesn’t take a genius to work out this is nonsense. The rest of the book deals with Bill’s dilemma: does he turn a blind eye – as the community wishes – or does he do something?
Small Things Like These exists in the tradition of novels designed to bring attention to social injustices. In that sense, my reading of the book worked just as it should, getting me to look up the history of Magdalen laundries, which I had not been aware of before. Simply casting light on this dark history is valuable in itself. But I felt the book was more than a kind of fictionalised investigative journalism. It’s real subject is the daily round, which carries people along, preventing them from seeing and thinking. Bill finds a hard comfort in humdrum duties which leave little time or energy for reflection on anything except work. However, Christmas is approaching, a time when for a few days at least, the daily round stops turning. The Church is the villain of this piece. However, it is poignant that the breaks in demanding routine, encouraging wider reflection, should be religious holidays. The Sunday before Christmas, a “threadbare and raw day” during which Bill longs for the routine of Monday, is a day of crisis for him. Then Christmas itself approaches, bringing with it Bill’s final reckoning. Undoubtedly, the holidays have their own demanding pattern – cake baking, midnight masses and the like. But even so, there remains at least a chink of light, that sense of a break in the daily drill of life, which provides a chance to see and do things differently.
The contrast between a truly corrupt Church, and a kind of counterbalancing opportunity offered by traditional holidays for thought and reflection on how we go about things, was, for me, the most interesting aspect of this beautifully written little book. It lent a quality which went beyond the specifics of the history it reveals.