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Posted on 27 Oct 2022 in Fiction |

CLAIRE KEEGAN Small Things Like These. Reviewed by Anna Verney

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In Claire Keegan’s novella of Ireland in the 1980s, a good man faces a testing decision.

In the cosmopolitan Ireland of blockbuster millennial novelist Sally Rooney, the main issues are capitalism and class rather than religion and religious institutions. Immersed in the contemporary settings of her novels, it’s easy to forget the control that the Catholic Church once exercised over Ireland. In contrast, the older generation of Irish novelists is more concerned with ‘autopsying the dead society’ of ‘Holy Catholic Ireland’, as Fintan O’Toole has described it. In this vein, Claire Keegan’s Booker prize-shortlisted and Orwell Prize-winning novella Small Things Like These powerfully dissects the Church’s recent history of abusive treatment of women and children.

Small Things Like These is set in the town of New Ross in the mid-1980s, in the ‘raw times’ of Ireland’s economic depression. On one level, the book works as the portrait of a good man, its protagonist Bill Furlong: a coal and timber merchant, and husband and father of five daughters. Keegan’s concise, precise images do evocative character- and world-building work, the dourness of the town’s atmosphere placed in relief against Furlong’s gentleness and warm family life. For example, as winter deepens over the town:

[C]himneys threw out smoke which fell away and drifted off in hairy, drawn-out strings before dispersing along the quays, and soon the River Barrow, dark as stout, swelled up with rain.

In contrast, as Christmas approaches, Furlong bakes a cake with his girls, a study in tender concentration, ‘chopp[ing] candied peel and cherries, soak[ing] whole almonds in boiled water and slip[ping] them from their skins,’ keeping ‘the oven low and steady for the night’ so his daughters are snug.

In Keegan’s depiction, Furlong is uncommonly kind. He both notices and lies awake at night thinking over the afflictions of others, what he calls ‘going over small things like these’. He gives the children of the ‘unfortunates’ in town ‘what bit of change was loose in [his] pocket’ to the chagrin of his harder-nosed wife Eileen. The reader understands that Furlong’s reflexive responsiveness to others’ misfortune, particularly that of children, is a product of his own suffering. Now in comparative comfort, Furlong has ‘come from nothing’, born out of wedlock to a teenage mother cast out by her Catholic family due to ‘her troubles’. He might have been a ward of the state had a Protestant widow not taken his pregnant mother in, then raised him after his mother’s early death.

While saved from destitution, in the context of the prevailing Catholic mores of New Ross, Furlong was not saved from the ostracism and cruelty that came with his father being unknown, resulting in an internalised sense of worthlessness. This is depicted in moving but understated detail by Keegan. For example, as middle-aged Furlong waits for the kettle to boil one morning, he can’t help but look back to ‘the things children said about him in school, the name he was called’. He remembers how once:

Mrs Wilson had rubbed the top of his head and praised him, as though he was one of her own. ‘You’re a credit to yourself,’ she’d told him. And for a whole day or more, Furlong had gone around feeling a foot taller, believing, in his heart, that he mattered as much as any other child.

Lest the reader think the judgmental attitudes that have caused such ‘upset’ to Furlong are products of an earlier time, Keegan describes him going to the registry office for a copy of his birth certificate. ‘Unknown’ written for his father’s name: ‘The clerk’s mouth … bent into an ugly smile handing it out to him, over the counter.’

This background heightens the emotional stakes when Furlong is confronted with the dilemma generated by the book’s instigating incident. When delivering coal to New Ross’ Good Shepherd convent, from which the nuns run a laundry business and girls’ training school, Furlong chances upon one of their teenage charges locked in a shed, its bolt stiff with frost. As he returns the girl to the convent, the Mother Superior locking the door behind her, the girl devastatingly asks him for help:

‘Won’t you ask them about my baby? … He must be hungry … [a]nd who is there to feed him now? … They’ve taken him from me now but they might let me feed him again, if he’s here. I don’t know where he is.’

Readers with knowledge of Irish history will recognise the convent as operating a Magdalen laundry, one of many mother-and-baby homes run and financed by the Irish state and the Church’s female orders in which an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 ‘fallen women’ were imprisoned and forced to work between 1922 and 1996. An unknown number of those women and their babies died, and many women lost their babies to forced removal and adoption. The Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny apologised for the state’s role in the laundries in 2013.

While Furlong initially returns the girl to the convent, his decision weighs on him, ‘For days, something hard had been gathering on his chest.’ Keegan’s novella turns on whether Furlong acts to help the girl or not, measuring the twists of Furlong’s conscience closely. His instinct to do nothing and protect his family’s comfort against the backlash of the Church and opprobrium of his neighbours battles the weight of his history and sense of right.

Parul Seghal argued recently in the New Yorker that contemporary novelists rely too often on a character’s trauma as a totalising device to yield ‘a story that can be easily diagrammed, a self that can be easily diagnosed’. Furlong is not a flat character in this way nor ultimately are his actions so easily diagrammable from his childhood trauma. However, what sets Keegan’s work apart from the writing that Seghal criticises – and what makes Keegan a great novelist – is her effective use of Furlong’s character and experiences to critique the institutional Church and the social complicity that enabled its worst abuses.

First, even before Furlong discovers the girl in the convent’s shed, his tenderness operates in counterpoint to the harshness of the Church, rendered by Keegan in a series of subtle but sinister images. In winter, ‘blades of cold slid[e] under doors and cut the knees off those who still knelt to say the rosary’. A flock of crows inspect the streets, ‘putting Furlong in mind of the young curate who liked to walk about town with his hands behind his back’. Furlong witnesses a ‘young schoolboy drinking the milk out of the cat’s bowl behind the priest’s house’, leaving the reader to question why the priest’s cat is fed but a child in need is not. In contrast to Furlong’s empathy, notwithstanding its doctrines of charity, the Church is revealed as an institution of censure rather than succour. In the face of its omniscience, the reader understands that for Furlong the consequences of resistance will be great.

Second, Keegan uses Furlong to indict the collective morality that both allowed the Church’s abuses to occur and perpetuated them. The existence of the Magdalen laundry and rumours of its brutality are open secrets in New Ross. As Furlong’s wife tells him, ‘If you want to get on in life, there’s things you have to ignore, so you can keep on.’ In their acquiescence, the townspeople are complicit. In Keegan’s account, this acquiescence sits on a continuum and has historical continuity with the cruelty visited upon Furlong as a child and adult in the name of the Church’s doctrines. Ultimately, it is not Furlong’s trauma-borne empathy that enables him to act where others have not. It is the clarity that comes from having been cast as an outsider in New Ross that allows him to recognise the hypocrisy of the townsfolk attending Mass and listening to sermons on God’s love while wilfully ignoring the Church’s cruelty. In one scene, ‘When the consecration was over and it came time to go up and receive Communion, Furlong stayed contrarily where he was, with his back against the wall.’

At one point in Small Things Like These, Furlong looks down at New Ross reflected in its ‘dark shining river’, considering that ‘many things had a way of looking finer, when they were not so close’. By the end of Keegan’s novella, I came to think that her close observation of New Ross achieved the same disillusioning but clarifying effect, revealing the social structures without which institutional cruelty cannot go unchecked. After the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Keegan’s themes will undoubtedly resonate with Australian readers in a rare book in which every word – achingly – counts.

Claire Keegan Small Things Like These Faber & Faber PB 128pp $19.99

Anna Verney is a lawyer and writer based on Gadigal land, completing a Masters of Creative Writing at The University of Sydney as a Janet O’Connor Scholar. She worked as a lawyer at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. You can find her on Twitter at @akverney. 

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