This week’s novel is to transport you away from the alarmingly warm weather into a gothic Irish town during winter. The short page-turner is a great pick for history nerds and those looking for a chillingly mysterious plot.
Claire Keegan’s long-awaited novella, “Small Things Like These,” centers on a coal merchant, Bill Furlong, his wife and their five daughters; the seven live in a small, isolated Irish town in 1985.
Nearing Christmas, the Furlong family seem to be having a cheery time, with Bill complimenting his daughter’s path in the world and questioning what more he could ask for. But, amidst her worldbuilding of a picturesque town, Keegan also builds up tension. It becomes clear early on that Bill is actually unsatisfied with his monotonous job and finds trouble seeking happiness like the other men in the town do.
“Sundays could feel very threadbare, and raw. Why could he not relax and enjoy them like other men who took a pint or two after Mass before falling asleep at the fire with the newspaper, having eaten a plate of dinner?” questions Bill.
He starts voicing his worries to his wife, reminisces about his late mother’s hardships and falls into a lonely existential void to which others in town, carrying the holiday cheer, cannot relate. Through Furlong’s anguished state, Keegan also makes the readers uneasy and conveys that perhaps this town is just as troubled as Furlong himself.
Bill’s mother was only a teenager when she gave birth, working as a live-in maid. Her employer, an elderly woman, cared deeply about the status of the pregnant-yet-unwed girl. In his spiral, Bill often questions how life would have been if she hadn’t cared. Would he still have gotten married into a middle-class family and had five girls whom he could educate?
In many ways, Bill is similar to the infamous Dickens hero, Pip, who starts as an impoverished blacksmith’s apprentice and later enters the upper class. Also like Pip, Bill does not settle blindly to his privilege.
Often, he sees women working in a secluded convent, a frequent subject of rumors for the townspeople. The more he hears their murmurs, he cannot help but wonder if people similarly gossipped behind his mother’s back. He ponders what would have become of himself if his mother, too, had ended up in the convent. Observing the women go in and out of the convent, silent and quick, he recognizes wealth and reputation are merely temporary.
There is sharp irony in the fact that a Catholic convent — long run by nuns who exploit young girls for labor — is the cause of Bill’s Christmastime nightmares. This choice not only makes the novel a comment on social state, but also institutionalized corruption. Keegan exposes how a seemingly innocent town turned a blind eye on the corruption of the Catholic Church, as they never questioned an institution they believed to be operating through the values of Christian charity.
“Where does thinking get us? […] All thinking does is bring you down,” writes Keegan, suggesting that despite religious teachings of welfare and service, people accept injustices that have been systemized. These issues go unaddressed if they require more than money and prayers to change.
What’s brilliant about Keegan’s narrative is that in just over 100 pages, her descriptive language unearths an ugliness to the town that is hard to ignore, yet has persevered over years.
“It was a December of crows,” she writes, slowly darkening the atmosphere as she hints at the dark clouds looming over a quaint town.
She subtly reveals the dismal mise en scene of the town, just as restless as the convent and the girls working in it, who are barely allowed to speak in the outside world. Through the undeniable bleakness of the town, Keegan alludes to the undeniable existence of corruption within the Catholic Church that has not only been ignored by the characters of her book but sanctioned by the Irish government for years.
The convent in “Small Things Like These” is just one example of a Magdalene laundry, institutions where sex workers, unwed women or young girls not accepted by their parents were forced to work and keep silent. Bill’s decisions in the book are an act of revolt against these institutions, which persisted in Ireland until 1996.
Painting Bill as a conventional Christian hero, an ordinary man who sets out to do a greater good, also seems to be a clever narrative decision. Unlike pre-Christian fictional heroes — who were born of myths and stood out due to their physical superiority or God-like qualities — heroes that came later, just like Bill, were representative of normal people who only carried the deific responsibilities of heroes past, but none of their godly qualities.
By creating a Christian hero who mirrors ordinary people, Keegan ultimately shapes a character whose own values are defined by the faith that has been systematically exploited for years. Bill’s journey exposes how systems that have gained people’s trust years ago are not void of corruption and provides a chilling plot so far from the expected holiday cheer.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions, and critiques.