Small Things Like These

Small Things Like These, Claire Keegan, Grove Atlantic, 1 Dec 2021

What a beautiful novella this is. Furlong is a coal merchant in a small town on the Irish coast. His own upbringing was fortuitous: although born out of wedlock, his mother was taken in by a Mrs Wilson who treated her and him kindly. He ekes out a modest but adequate living, keeping his wife and five daughters well.

His work is demanding physically but not intellectually: he works long hours, starting before dawn and rarely getting home early. There is a kind of ennui that permeates his actions. Take this:

The next morning when Furlong woke and lifted the curtain, the sky looked strange and close with a few, dim stars. On the street, a dog was licking something from a tin can, pushing noisily across the frozen pavement with his nose. Already the crows were out, sidling along and letting out short, hoarse caws and longer, fluent kaaahs as though the found the world more or less objectionable.

His marriage is comfortable, but layered with a feeling of inadequacy:

When the talk dried up, Eileen reached out for the Sunday Independent and gave it a shake. Not for the first time, Furlong felt that he was poor company for her, that he seldom made a long night shorter.

The book is full of these keen observations of minute details, giving a deep texture to a simple story. Yet the book also thrums with a deeper tension – I devoured it cover to cover in three sessions – Furlong has for too long been a spectator to his own life and has survived by keeping his head down. He distributes small kindnesses such as forgiving a debt here or extending credit where it is needed, but has ducked the larger ones.

These manifest themselves at the local convent, which also acts as the town’s laundry. The convent takes in girls such as Furlong’s mother once was, who have become pregnant and are kicked out of their families, but rumours abound that these girls are not treated well. When, one morning, Furlong stumbles across a living manifestation of that, he is confronted with more than just the immediate problem, but faces the wider issue of what his life has become.

I won’t say more of the plot, but do read this book when it comes out. It’s one I’ll be rereading, I suspect more than once.