Archive for the ‘Keegan Claire’ Category

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan – stunning

April 10, 2023 18 comments

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.

Too Irishy for its own good

March 28, 2013 29 comments

Foster by Claire Keegan 2010. French title : Les trois lumières.

I bought this book on a whim, in French, something I tried to avoid when it’s Anglophone literature but sometimes I’m just too lazy to read in English.

Keegan_3_lumièresFoster is a very short book (around 80 pages) and is narrated by a child. It’s hard to say when it is set, probably before the 1970s. Her father drives her to a foreign house to spend the summer with relatives she’s never seen. The girl arrives at the house, is quickly left behind by her thoughtless father. We soon understand that her mother is pregnant again, that she’s too tired with her pregnancy, the girl’s siblings and trying to make ends meet to take care of this quiet little girl. Her father seems to be lazy, spending more time gambling than working, leaving all the farm work to his wife. This little girl arrives in a childless household and is welcomed by kind and caring foster parents. They are quite silent, willing to take care of her and she progressively adapts to her new surroundings.

Foster is a lovely book, delicate in its way of unravelling dramas and describing the bond this little girl creates with this couple. I enjoyed the descriptions of the countryside near the ocean. It’s lovely but a bit too smooth and not exactly predictable, but a bit clichéd and déjà vu. How can I explain this. First the style is too polished and even if it’s good and flowing it’s not that creative. I imagine that the translation (Belgian or Swiss, probably, I spotted a septante instead of soixante-dix, somewhere) is faithful and reflects Claire Keegan’s style.

Second, it reminded me of a comment Caroline left when I wrote about True Believers by Joseph O’Connor. She wrote “I think he writes well but some people would argue that they hate exactly this poor people’e tales because it sounds so Irish cliché.”  I didn’t think this applied to O’Connor’s short stories but perhaps it does to Foster. Just read the first paragraph:

Early on a Sunday, after first Mass in Clonegal, my father, instead of taking me home drives deep into Wexford towards the coast where my mother’s people came from. It is a hot day, bright, with patches of shade and greenish, sudden light along the road. We pass through the village of Shillelagh where my father lost our red Shorthorn in a game of forty-five, and on past the mart in Carnew where the man who won the heifer sold her shortly afterwards. My father throws his hat on the passenger seat, winds down the window, and smokes.

So we have a tired and respectful mother married to a useless man who spends the family’s money gambling, lets his pregnant wife organize farm work and housework and can’t even keep his hands off her to avoid another pregnancy since contraception isn’t an option. They live on the edge of poverty, the father doesn’t do anything at home and the mother is too overwhelmed with everything to take care of her children the way they deserve. The other couple has also lived through a traumatic experience.

I think this is too much: too much misery in a book kills compassion. I have the same feeling as when I read Hidden Lives by Sylvie Germain. The story has been seen before in a way, and well, it’s a nice read but I don’t think it’ll stay with me. If I were Irish, I’d be a bit irritated that it fosters the expected clichés about Ireland. I preferred Joseph O’Connor; his characters sounded real.

This book has glowing reviews like here or here at Delphine’s Books and More; or with reservations like here at Savidge Reads

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