It was a December of crows. People had never seen the likes of them, gathering in black batches on the outskirts of town then coming in, walking the streets, cocking their heads and perching, impudently, on whatever lookout post that took their fancy, scavenging for what was dead, or diving in mischief for anything that looked edible along the roads before roosting at night in the huge old trees around the convent.
The convent was a powerful-looking place on the hill at the far side of the river with black, wide-open gates, and a host of tall, shining windows, facing the town.
Bill Furlong is a decent man, risen from a lowly station in life to being a respected pillar-of-the-community sort. Not well off, mind, but a coal and wood supplier who keeps several folks employed, his customers supplied, and his family fed, a George Bailey sort, but from a much less settled foundation. There is never much left over, and always a new cost looming on the horizon. In the course of making his rounds he sees something that presents a powerful moral challenge. The story is Furlong’s struggle to decide, stay silent, or do something.
Claire Keegan – image from her FB page – shot by Cartier-Bresson
1985 is a grim time in New Ross. Ireland is in the midst of a long recession. Despairing of ever finding work, people are emigrating in droves, to England, to America, to wherever work can be had. Those who remain hold little hope for any near relief. Those with work know that they could be laid off in a heartbeat. Those running businesses know that their continued survival depends on the continued demand of their customers, and the customers’ ability to pay. Those without work drain their savings, survive on the dole, or what charity they can find. Too many, employed or not, drown their fears in drink. Keegan captures the bleak tone of the time.
the dole queues were getting longer and there were men out there who couldn’t pay their ESB bills, living in houses no warmer than bunkers, sleeping in their coats. Women, on the first Friday of every month, lined up at the post office wall with shopping bags, waiting to collect their children’s allowances. And farther out the country, he’d known cows left bawling to be milked because the man who had their care had upped, suddenly, and taken the boat to Fishguard. Once, a man from St Mullins got a lift into town to pay his bill, saying that they’d had to sell the car as they couldn’t get a wink of sleep knowing what was owing, that the bank was coming down on them. And early one morning, Furlong has seen a young schoolboy eating from a chip bag that had been thrown down on the street the night before
Christmas is coming, and one might wonder if that starving boy was a descendant of Tiny Tim’s. Keegan even summons A Christmas Carol to mind, noting that, as a boy, Furlong had received the book for Christmas.
He had had a difficult start to life, raised by a single mother, his father not known to him. Luckily for them, a well-to-do local woman, Mrs Wilson, took in mother and son, employing mom to work in the house. Things could have been a lot worse. Like many other nations, Ireland was host to a network of Magdalene Laundries. These were institutions run by the Catholic Church, with the complicity of the Irish government. Young women who became pregnant were often cast out of their communities, their families even, and these enterprises took them in. Reports eventually emerged revealing the abuses these girls and young women endured, often being forced to give away their babies, living in degrading conditions, essentially forced laborers in church-state workhouses. Thousands of infants died there, and many of their mothers as well. New Ross was one of the places where a Magdalene laundry was run. It is one of the reasons Keegan chose to set her story there. This is not a tale about these laundries, per se, but one of those constitutes the immediate and very considerable dark force that Bill Furlong is thinking about taking on. While delivering coal to the convent, he sees something he was not supposed to see. To act or not to act, that is the question.
Why were the things that were closest so often the hardest to see?
The language of this novel, the imagery is powerfully effective, celestial even. I felt a need to read a lot of this book out loud. (trying to avoid spoiling it with my terribly fake Irish accent) There is a rhythm, a musicality to the writing that propels its powerful imagery towards the intended targets.
The passage quoted at the top of this review offers a sense not only of a grim time and place, but of the hostile force of the nuns, priests, and the Church, as embodied by the crows. The state, participant in the Magdalene miseries, is given passing notice when a local pol parachutes into town for a Christmas-tree-lighting, if it is possible to parachute in while riding a Mercedes and wearing a rich man’s coat. This is a town that is not being well looked after by the authorities.
When she was 17, she went to New Orleans. “I got an opportunity to go and stay with a family there, and then I wound up going to university. A double major in political science and English literature.”
She remembers well what Ireland was like the year she left.
“I really wanted to get out. It was 1986. Ann Lovett had just died. I felt the darkness that is in Small Things Like These. I felt that atmosphere of unemployment, and being trapped maybe. And things not looking so good for women.
“My parents used to go dancing, and I used go with them, down to the pub. I remember everybody getting really drunk at the bar on a Sunday night.
“I remember looking at all the men at the bar – it was pretty much all men at the bar – and they were getting drunk and saying they couldn’t bear the thought of going back to work in the morning. And then others would say they didn’t have any work in the morning. – from the Independent interview
When she returned home with her degree, Keegan sent out 300 resumes and did not get a nibble. Erin go Bragh.
The harsh times have not driven from people in New Ross the ability to want things, needed or not. Furlong’s wife, Eileen, wants a proper, going-away vacation, as well as some nice things seen in a shop window. His children have small, mostly manageable desires. The people in town want an end to economic doldrums, some reason to stay around instead of emigrating. The residents of the convent want something more significant. Furlong is in dire need of a new truck to replace the one his business relies on, and which is nearing its last gasp. He also wants to know who his father was.
Of late, he was inclined to imagine another life, elsewhere, and wondered if this was not something in his blood; might his own father not have been one of those who had upped, suddenly, and taken the boat for England.
He is no saint, but workaholic Furlong has that rare capacity to look inside himself critically, consider his life, his actions, in light of his values, even recognize where he might have stepped away from the moral line he believes in following. He had opted to ignore wrongs he had seen before, but for this father of five girls, and son of a single mother, this is a tough one to let pass. However, there are powerful, and insidious forces arrayed against his better angels. He is repeatedly warned, when he mentions his concerns, that crossing the Church could be extremely costly.
The cold of the season will make you shiver and want to add another layer as you read. Some Irish coffee might help as well. Will Furlong cross that bridge and do something or let what he knows sink into nothingness in the dark, frigid waters of the Barrow River below? You will want to know, and will read on until you do.
Keegan is mostly known as a short-story writer. She has won many awards for her work, which is marked by compactness, showing what needs to be shown to tell her tale. Do not dismiss this novel for its brevity. Small Things Like These is huge! You may not need to prepare a manger with fresh hay, but I would definitely make room for this novel in your collection this holiday season. It is an evocative, beautiful, moving novel that deserves to become a Christmas classic.
As they carried on along and met more people Furlong did and did not know, he found himself asking 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 and yet call yourself a Christian, and face yourself in the mirror?
Review posted – November 12, 2021
Publication date – November 30, 2021
I received an e-ARE of Small Things Like These from Grove Press in return for a fair review, and a few lumps of coal. Thanks, folks, and thanks to Netgalley for facilitating. Bless you, every one.
This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads
On her personal site, there are links to, among other things, two of her short stories, in the Links tab.
—–The Guardian – Claire Keegan: ‘Short stories are limited. I’m cornered into writing what I can’ by Sean O’Hagan – 2010
—–New Ross Standard – Claire’s novel examines cult of silence in 1980s New Ross by Simon Bourke – April 2021
—–Claire Keegan: ‘I think something needs to be as long as it needs to be’ by Claire Armistead
—–Independent.ie – Writer Claire Keegan: ‘I think stories go looking for their authors’ by Emily Hourican
—–The Writing Life – Claire Keegan and the art of subtraction by Terence Patrick Winch – video – 28:29 – from 2013 – re her short stories
Items of Interest
—–The Charles Dickens page – A Christmas Carol – the full text
—–BBC – Irish mother and baby homes: Timeline of controversy
—–Wiki about The 2005 Ferns Report on sexual abuse of children by priests in the Diocese of Ferns
—–The actual report
—–Wiki on the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland
—–Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries