“Small Things Like These” is an ideal title for this exquisite novella in which Claire Keegan closely attends to the daily life of a modest County Wexford coal vendor. In very little space, Keegan distills the texture of village life during Ireland’s devastating 1980s recession. While the novella is a sharp critique of Catholic institutions, it’s also a bold examination of Christian charity.
It’s the fall of 1985 and Bill Furlong is observing Advent rituals with his wife, Eileen, and their five daughters in the town square. Furlong’s Advent is a month of critical discovery and painful reflection. Scarred in his youth by classmates’ taunts of “bastard,” young Bill had lived with his single mother and the Protestant woman she worked for. When Mum died, Mrs. Wilson became a foster parent. These days he’s solvent for the moment, but he and his neighbors inhabit a weary land marked by increasing unemployment, low living standards, and high emigration:
“In New Ross, the shipyard company had closed and Albatros, the big fertiliser factory … had made several redundancies. Bennett’s had let eleven employees go, and Graves & Co., where Eileen had worked, which had been there for as long as anyone could remember, had closed their doors. The auctioneer said business was stone cold, that he might as well be trying to sell ice to the Eskimos. And Miss Kenny, the florist, whose shop was near the coal yard, had boarded up her window …”
Although she’s published only four books in the last 22 years, Keegan’s writing is justly celebrated. Among her awards are the William Trevor Prize, the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and The Los Angeles Times Book of the Year. Her work is published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Granta and translated into 20 languages.
Keegan’s precisely considered details about character, setting, memory, and dramatic moment create a story you will want to read again and again. Her deceptively simple language is pitch-perfect:
“Sometimes Furlong, seeing the girls going through the small things which needed to be done — genuflecting in the chapel or thanking a shopkeeper for the change — felt a deep, private joy that these children were his own.”
‘Aren’t we the lucky ones?’ he remarked to Eileen in bed one night. ‘There’s many out there badly off.’
‘We are, surely.’
‘Not that we’ve much,’ he said. ‘But, still.’”
We watch Furlong delivering coal to customers and giving free wood to neighbors who can’t afford coal, creaming a pound of butter and sugar for the family Christmas cake, treating his men to a holiday restaurant meal, buying Christmas gifts for his family, all the while trying to drift above the scrim of haunting secrecy about the identity of his birth father and a recent disturbing visit to the local convent. He has begun to doubt the real purpose of the nun’s “training school” (based on the notoriously exploitative Magdalene Laundries).
“There was other talk, too, about the place,” Keegan writes. “Some said that the training school girls, as they were known, weren’t students of anything, but were girls of low character who spent their days being reformed, doing penance by washing stains out of the dirty linen, that they worked from dawn til night.”
One day he discovers a student locked in the convent coal shed. Desperately weak and dripping with breast milk, she begs Furlong to ask the nuns about her baby. Mother Superior feigns shock to find the girl in such a state and makes a show of bathing and feeding her. After a strained conversation, he leaves without asking about the baby. Word travels about this rare encounter and Mrs. Kehoe, the restaurant owner, gravely warns him against crossing the nuns.
“He stood back then and faced her. ‘Surely they’ve only as much power as we give them, Mrs Kehoe?’
‘I wouldn’t be too sure.’ She paused then and looked at him the way hugely practical women sometimes looked at men, as though they weren’t men at all but foolish boys.”
By Christmas Eve he can’t stop thinking about the outcast mother and missing child. He knows he should be home preparing for Midnight Mass with Eileen and the girls. He knows Mrs. Kehoe is right about the power of the Church in his village, in all of Ireland. Challenging the convent would threaten his livelihood. He sees his mother in the distraught girl and recalls how Mrs. Wilson took them in.
“Was it possible to carry on along through all the years,” he asks himself, “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?”
Keegan’s stirring tale reminded me of lines from Patricia Spears Jones’s poem, “What You Know”: “There are prayers, say some, strong enough/ to shake blood from your hands, /death from your eyes. /You do what you can and, sometimes/You make music …” Keegan’s music is well suited to this season in a world where too often self-interest overshadows compassion.
SMALL THINGS LIKE THESE
By Claire Keegan
Grove Atlantic, 128 pages, $20
Valerie Miner is the author of 15 books including her new story collection, “Bread and Salt.” She teaches at Stanford and her website is www.valerieminer.com.