By Claire Keegan
110 pages Literary
When I was a girl in the 1960s, I knew a couple of girls who disappeared from school for several months, only to return after “visiting some relatives” or “living with Grandma and Grandpa.” Claire Keegan explores this all-too-common occurrence in her 2022 Booker Prize-nominated novella, Small Things Like These. And just like in 1960s Minnesota, in 1980s Ireland, these things are not talked about and remain a secret.
Small Things Like These is so intricately woven in only 110 pages, that I realized after I read it the first time that I was missing something. So I read it again, and my heart broke at the integrity of Bill Furlong, an almost 40-year-old man who owns the village coal and lumber company. Bill is married and the father of five daughters. He is a stalwart, well-respected member of the community. He goes to mass every week and his daughters go to school and get music training at the school run by the local nuns. One day he makes a discovery that makes him confront both his past and the complicit silence of his community—a community completely controlled by the Catholic Church.
Christmas plays a role in the story line. In one delightful scene, Furlong’s children all write letters to Santa with their lists of presents. Bill and his wife Eileen read the letters after the children go to bed, choose the presents they can afford from the list, and then burn the letters in the fireplace. We are made completely aware of the unity and the love within this family.
Yet Furlong yearns for more. This paragraph is profound in the way he thinks about life. “Always it was the same, Furlong thought; always they carried mechanically on without pause, to the next job at hand. What would life be like, he wondered, if they were given time to think and reflect over things? Might their lives be different or much the same—or would they just lose the run of themselves?”
Claire Keegan is one of Ireland’s most prominent authors, and this was the first book I had read written by her. It is brilliant in the concept as well as in the composition. I am absolutely amazed at her ability to say so much in so few words. We understand Bill Furlong; we understand his community; and we understand the secret the community is holding. I was overwhelmed.