Claire Keegan’s tiny, cataclysmic novel takes us into the heart of small-town Ireland a few decades ago, creating a world that feels in certain respects dead and buried but whose legacy the country is still processing. This is Ireland before the boom and bust of the Celtic Tiger; before the insidious, everyday power of the Catholic church began to be eroded by the exposure of multiple abuse scandals; before its population voted overwhelmingly in favour of marriage equality and access to abortion. Yet in other respects the life it describes is familiar, and the Wexford town of New Ross, dominated by the River Barrow and governed by the rhythms of work and family, is representative of life as it is still lived outside the country’s major population centres.
It is a few days before Christmas in 1985, and Bill Furlong, a coal-and-timber merchant, is hard pressed, working around the clock in bitter weather to make sure that fuel is delivered before the holiday. But though he has little time for contemplation, his mind returns to his childhood, in which the kindness of the Protestant woman for whom his mother worked as a housekeeper, saved him — a child born out of wedlock, father unknown — from an uncertain and precarious future. Now approaching middle age, with five daughters of his own, he knows that he has been lucky, but also that something sets him apart from those around him — even his steady, capable and loving wife.
The novel’s defining, traumatic event comes by stealth, interleaved by descriptions of a mildly heightened domestic life (the minor tension of locks frozen solid and Christmas cakes set baking through the night) and Furlong’s apprehension: his sense of something gathering to unsettle him. Delivering fuel to the local convent — an establishment rumoured to house ‘girls of low character who spent their days being reformed, doing penance by washing stains out of the dirty linen’, but also admired for the stream of beautifully smoothed, whitened sheets and handkerchiefs it produces — Furlong happens upon evidence of something far darker and crueller. What he does next, as he is immediately aware of, will tell him something fundamental about himself.
For all its minutely observed and sparely sketched realism, Keegan’s writing accommodates the portentous and fabular: crows gather, ‘walking the streets, cocking their heads and perching, impudently, on whatever lookout post that took their fancy, scavenging for what was dead’; an elderly man recalls being deterred from stealing hay by something non-human rearing up at him, ‘an ugly thing with no hands’. The river itself, depositing Polish and Russian boatmen in the town as they deliver coal, is also the source of a curse — a reference to the legend that the Barrow would take three lives each year as a result of a dispute between medieval monks and the towns-people. The curse mutates into the sight of young girls, desperate to escape the convent, begging to be taken there to drown themselves.
But the strength of the novel is its ability to allow the symbolic and mythical to deepen its realism rather than dilute it. Naturally, there is a feeling of suppressed rage to the narrative: Keegan has dedicated it to the women and children who suffered in Ireland’s mother-and-baby homes and the Magdalene laundries, and pays tribute to the work of Catherine Corless, the historian who brought to light the deaths in such circumstances of nearly 800 children in Tuam, Co. Galway. Small Things Like These is deeply impressive in its own right, as well as being part of the ongoing investigation of a time so distant and yet so near.