Poignant beauty, perfectly crafted

Staying In

Claire Keegan’s ‘Small Things Like These’

Book review
Bríd Conroy

I live in a world of books and never cease to admire all authors who manage to complete a book. I dabble in creative writing myself but have alas never actually finished anything, apart from a poem – and arguably a poem is never quite finished anyway.
Of the many books I have the privilege to read, on rare occasions, I come across a book that makes me sit up and think, I want to do that too. And what is that thing? It is, I believe a set of words so perfectly crafted that I want to emulate it or rather would love to. In any case, I am inspired.
‘Small Things Like These’, by Claire Keegan, published by Faber and Faber is one such book. It topped the bookselling charts in Ireland in the run up to Christmas and continues still to this week.
The story centres around Bill Furlong, a coal merchant in New Ross in Wexford in 1985. He himself had been born in 1946 to his 16-year-unmarried mother. Rejected by her own family, she had been taken in by Mrs Wilson, the protestant widow in the big house she had worked for. Bill himself is married to Eileen, and they have five daughters.
Bill’s life is busy making ends meet, with barely time to ponder the many ‘small things like these’. In the weeks running up to Christmas he begins to wonder what would happen to their lives if they gave time to properly thinking about things.
The town houses a convent up on the hill which is also a ‘training school’ and a laundry. Bill stumbles upon an incident while delivering coal to the convent in the week leading to Christmas. As events unfold, Bill is left with a life changing dilemma: which is worse, the things not done or the wrong things done for the right reasons? The conciseness of the novella and the starkness of the story, leave the reader with so many unanswered questions and a challenge to respond.
In Keegan’s previous book, ‘Foster’, also published by Faber and Faber, the reader is equally challenged by the narrator of the story, a young girl who is to be fostered temporarily to a childless couple in another town also part of Wexford. The woman of the couple buys her new clothes. The man takes her to the beach and holds her hand as they walk on the sand.
We see the emergence of beauty through the couple’s kindness to her, but all the while we are conscious of the child’s heartbreaking reality of what was absent before. “If you were mine, I’d never leave you in a house with strangers.” The couple themselves have been struck with tragedy, and their story unfolds as does the young girl’s.
Both stories are of a time and place in Ireland, in the not so distant past. These were times of struggle and repression, of societal norms that today we find appalling. Yet Keegan shows us the poignant beauty that comes only from lack and absence, and we are left strangely optimistic and hopeful that beauty and love shines through regardless.

Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.