CBR Bingo: Cold
Well, the semester started, and away with it went my brain, or at least the part of it I use for writing. Still! I’ve been reading! So time to eke out a review or two before I crumble.
Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These came to my attention along with Audrey Magee’s The Colony when it was long listed for the Booker Prize. Magee didn’t make the shortlist, but Keegan did, and Small Things Like These has the honor of being the shortest novel to ever make the shortlist. And it is a tiny, compact diamond of a story.
As they carried along and met more people Furlong did and did not know, he found himself asking was there any point in being alive without helping one another? Was it possible to carry on along through all the years, the decades, through an entire life, without once being brave enough to go against what was there and yet call yourself a Christian, and face yourself in the mirror?
It unfurls itself slowly over the course of a few bitterly cold days near Christmas. Its temporal setting of 1985 is not far removed from The Colony’s 1979, but the Troubles feel remote from Bill Furlong’s little village, where he has spent his entire life, first as the only child of an unwed mother, growing up in the home of the kindly Protestant widow who hired Bill’s mother as housekeeper despite her illegitimate pregnancy, when no one else in the village would. Bill grew up poor, and as Christmas comes closer, he sometimes remembers with the old but sharp ache of childhood how there were at times no real presents to look forward to on Christmas Day. Now that he is an adult, running his own business and raising five daughters with a wife he clearly loves, he tries his best to give them more than he had, even if he worries about the engine of his business lorry and all the other little anxieties of adult life. (You know he’s a decent family man when he catches his wife’s hint about the shoes she wants for Christmas and makes sure to buy them, and when he and his wife read their daughters’ letters to Santa and compile a shopping list together.)
But there are other undercurrents in the village that rise to the surface, and on a routine delivery of fuel to the convent, where his daughters get their music lessons, Bill sees firsthand their other business venture, the laundry, and not its pleasant public reputation of perfectly laundered clothing, but instead a young woman, recently postpartum, locked in a frigid shed with no shoes, freezing as punishment for some misdeed. And he just can’t let go of that, once he’s seen it. What, then, is he to do?
Keegan dedicated the book to the women and children who suffered in the Magdalene Laundries throughout the 20th century (the last laundry didn’t close until 1996). And while much (rightly) is made of Bill’s struggle with his conscience, and his knowledge that to act on what he saw may ostracize him and his beloved family in their small town, I was left struck by how Keegan also fires this book like an arrow into the idea that nobody really knew what was happening in those laundries. It’s made very clear that some of Bill’s neighbors are very aware of how the convent laundry runs, and who disappears behind those walls to work in it, but, well, the nuns do such good work, don’t they? Best to just let it be, right? Evil things happen because good people choose to do nothing, and plenty of people, Keegan suggests, knew exactly what was going on and deliberately chose to do nothing. Bill, then, must choose for himself as well, now that he knows beyond all doubt that young women are suffering in this place–and that but for the largesse of one now-deceased Protestant widow, his own mother could have ended up in such a place, with who knows what fate for Bill himself. (Certainly not the warm, happy life he cherishes now.)
It’s early to be thinking about what to read near Christmastime, but if you want a book set at Christmas that’s devoid of sappy cliches, and yet yearns for redemption, Small Things Like These might be something to put away for yourself closer to the season.