Home > 2020s, 21st Century, Highly Recommended, Irish Literature, Keegan Claire, Novella > Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan – stunning

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan – stunning

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (2020) French title: Ce genre de petites choses. Translated by Jacqueline Odin.

I owe Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan to my KUBE libraire. I didn’t like Foster that much when I read it and never tried another book by Claire Keegan after. I would have been missing out.

Small Things Like These is set in New Ross, Ireland, in the weeks before Christmas. It’s a busy time for Bill Furlong, a coal merchant and family man. He runs his company while his wife Eileen runs the house and takes care of their five children. His days are long as he delivers coal supplies to his clients before the holidays.

Among Bill’s clients is the local Magdalene Asylum. The Magdalen Asylums were convents where “fallen” girls were sent and worked for their keep as laundresses. In Ireland, they lasted from 1765 to 1998 according to Wikipedia and were run by the Catholic Church with the approval of the Irish government. They were workhouses with terrible living conditions.

One day, Bill finds a girl hidden in the convent’s coal shed who asks him about her baby. He’s deeply moved and can’t turn a blind eye to this young woman’s predicament. Indeed, Bill’s mother was a single mum, a perfect candidate for the Magdalene system.

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 it clear that 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. On the morning Furlong was born, it was Mrs Wilson who had his mother taken into hospital, and had them brought home. It was the first of April, 1946, and some said the boy would turn out to be a fool.

Bill’s and his mother’s life wouldn’t have turned out so well without Mrs Wilson. He knows he could have ended in the system. For Bill, it’s time to give back. For Eileen, it’s better not to stick your nose where it doesn’t belong. The Sisters at the convent are powerful and it’s better not to cross them.

Small Things Like These is a tour de force. In only 117 pages in French (less in English), Claire Forster manages to write a fully-formed story about a family, a man’s childhood and these terrible Magdalena asylums.

In a few pages, her characters, the town and the laundry business come to life. I imagined very well working-class Bill, his wife, their children, their home. They work hard to have a decent life and raise their children. They don’t want to stir trouble or be in the hot topic of the town’s conversations. They have a good life and are successful, in a sense that they improved themselves.

Bill is thankful for Mrs Wilson and as an adult, admires what she did for his mum and for him. He knows that having his mum in her home must have made people talk and yet Mrs Wilson did it anyway. He’s thankful for the small things, the little gestures and her rebellious act of keeping this girl and her son in her home.

Through the scenes at the convent, Eileen’s remarks and people’s reactions, we understand that the convent is a place of power. In helping this girl, Bill takes a risk and he knows it but he must to it. For her, for himself and for Mrs Wilson.

The contrast between Bill and the Sisters is striking. They are supposed to be the professional Christians, the experts in generosity and compassion. Yet, they set up a hard, unfair and inhuman system for these poor girls. One can argue that the Irish government and the Catholic Church hierarchy were the actual culprits. Indeed, they are responsible for the material living conditions, for not setting up proper education and for treating these girls as inmates. But each local convent is responsible for its sisters’s behaviour towards these girls. Being nice doesn’t come with a budget or with State allowances. Bill reminds us of the basis of Christianism.

Small Things Like These is an homage to all the quiet people who do the right thing, who help others and don’t make a fuss about it. It’s an ode to the rebels of the quotidian and to daily generosity. People who refuse to look the other way and take action.

Very, very highly recommended.

Thanks, Camille for sending me Small Things Like These in my KUBE package!

Other reviews:

Discover Cathy’s review here, Lisa’s here and Kim’s here.

  1. April 10, 2023 at 8:51 am

    Thanks for the link, Emma, and what a beautiful review you have written!


    • April 10, 2023 at 8:57 am

      Thanks, but you’re too kind.
      Did this book stay with you? I’d like to read it again one day. It was very moving and I’m sure I missed details and since not a word is out of place…


      • April 10, 2023 at 9:54 am

        Yes, it has stayed with me, strange how some books do and others just fade away…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. April 10, 2023 at 1:02 pm

    Lovely review Emma. I really like your final summary – it definitely sounds a hugely powerful read.


    • April 10, 2023 at 8:19 pm

      It qualifies for An Novella a Day in May ! 🙂
      It’s truly an excellent book: form and substance. It deserves all the praise it received.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. April 10, 2023 at 2:11 pm

    I also thought this book was absolutely wonderful. I was reminded of it again recently when I read Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry. I can highly recommend that if you haven’t already read it.


    • April 10, 2023 at 8:21 pm

      Bill Furlong stays with you, doesn’t he? He could be a neighbour, that’s why.
      I haven’t read Old God’s Time, I’ll check it out, thanks for the recommendation.


  4. April 13, 2023 at 8:06 am

    It’s a wonderful book, isn’t it, just perfect, I felt. I compelled my husband to read it but he seems to have stopped about 3/4 of the way through!


    • April 13, 2023 at 9:21 pm

      I thought it was perfectly executed. I’m surprised your husband didn’t finish it, it’s so short!


  5. April 13, 2023 at 11:22 am

    Absolutely in agreement with your reaction to this book. It was my highlight of 2022. I loved the way she conveyed so much in so few words.


    • April 13, 2023 at 9:22 pm

      She’s incredible. It’s very difficult to tell so much in less than 150 pages like she did. Very impressive.


  6. April 16, 2023 at 10:08 am

    Lovely review. This is a book which is very much on my radar. A difficult subject matter but one which it sounds like Keegan has handled beautifully.


    • April 16, 2023 at 7:31 pm

      It’s done perfectly and I really, really recommend it.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pat
    April 16, 2023 at 8:20 pm

    It was a great book and rang in my ears with the idioms and ways of speech that I assosciate with Ireland. « Putting the cake on the long finger » and many others from my own childhood. I’m pleased you liked it


    • April 16, 2023 at 8:33 pm

      I read it in French, so I missed the Irish idioms, even if there were a few comments by the translator.
      It’s a beautiful book about a terrible piece of History. It’s awful to think these institutions lasted so long.
      It reminded me of The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.


  8. Pat
    April 16, 2023 at 11:12 pm

    Did you see the Magdalene Sisters by Peter Mullan about this subject (20 years ago), had never heard of it before?


    • April 17, 2023 at 8:19 am

      I knew about this film but only connected the dots when I read Small Things Like These. Now I want to see the film too.
      No I didn’t know about it. I knew about the schools in Canada and Australia and what they did to native people but that’s all.
      I’m surprised there’s nothing like this in France since the country is mostly catholic too. Maybe it’s because the governments after the French Revolution weren’t ready to cover such things. Or I’ve simply never heard of it.


  9. Pat
    April 18, 2023 at 9:59 pm

    Now there’s an interesting question

    Liked by 1 person

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