It is 1985 in a small town in Ireland, and Bill Furlong is flat out delivering coal and wood in the snow before Christmas. As he, his wife and young daughters prepare for the holidays, he finds out by accident that something is wrong at the local convent. Why are the girls he sees there distressed?
This is a perfect novella. I bought it for someone else for Christmas but now have to keep it for myself, unfortunately for them. Keegan writes the kind of sentences that make you stare at them to find out why they work so well.
Furlong “had come from nothing. Less than nothing, some might say. His mother, at the age of sixteen, had fallen pregnant while working as a domestic for Mrs Wilson, the Protestant widow who lived in the big house a few miles outside of town. When his mother’s trouble became known, and her people made clear they’d have no more to do with her, Mrs Wilson, instead of giving his mother her walking papers, told her she should stay on, and keep her work”. This makes Furlong unusual in his community, and also helps him to reflect on what is happening at the convent.
The story responds to the scandals of the Magdalene Laundries and mother and baby homes in Ireland. Furlong realises that something is not right, but what can he do? The church is part of daily life, and to challenge it is dangerous. A woman warns him: “Tis no affair of mine, you understand, but you know you’d want to watch over what you’d say about what’s there? Keep the enemy close, the bad dog with you and the good dog will not bite. You know yourself”.
Small Things Like These helped me think about how we live alongside injustice, suffering and impunity every day, and decide not to see it or to do anything about it. What might it take to end such collusion? What happens when we finally allow ourselves to see that something treated as inevitable or invisible is unbearable?
After reading Small Things Like These I had to read Belonging by Catherine Corless with Naomi Linehan, the true story of how an amateur historian helped expose the shocking story of the missing babies of the Tuam mother and baby home in the Republic of Ireland. It is an outstanding account of how diligent research and campaigning can bring human rights violations to light, and hold to account those who have acted with impunity (see this detailed review in the Irish Independent – https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/book-reviews/catherine-corless-memoir-is-a-story-of-the-living-as-much-as-the-dead-40859120.html). A colleague directed me to Motherbabyhome, an extraordinary work of conceptual and performance poetry by Kimberley Campanello which memorialises the 796 children who lost their lives, and is partly based on files provided by Corless to the poet (http://www.kimberlycampanello.com/motherbabyhome). Seeing some of the archive documents found by Corless, alongside the names of some of the children involved, is moving. These themes also recur throughout the excellent Quirke crime novel series by John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black). Art like this helps us process what has happened, and what is happening.
Keegan’s book is full of small kindnesses as well as troubles. The love in the family, who do not have much but are glad of what they do have, is uplifting. A free bag of coal is left on the doorstep for those who can’t afford it, but then Furlong worries that he should not have accepted gifts from those who can’t afford to give them. These are the ethics of everyday life.
Small Things Like These is not saccharine, just readable and relatable. My main feeling after this is to re-read Ariel Dorfman’s Manifesto for Another World. Make of that what you will.