Claire Keegan Makes a Bigger Splash

Book Review by Frances Devlin-Glass

Claire Keegan, Small Things Like These, Faber & Faber, London, 2021

ISBN: 9780571368686

RRP: £10.00

I read Claire Keegan’s Foster (2009) after seeing An Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl) at the Irish Film Festival. I was struck by its spare style and its disciplined reining in of huge emotions, while at the same time exploring emotional cruelty and its obverse, tenderness. Over a long writing career, Claire Keegan has graduated from short stories to two increasingly elaborate novellas. One wonders if she will encompass the longer and more capacious form of the novel. However, novellas of the quality of Foster and Small Things like These are rare, such is the intensity of focus they require.

So, having enjoyed the film, I was keen to read Small Things Like These, which explores the social machinery that allowed baby farming and abuse of girls under the Magdalen Laundry system to occur. Again, like Foster, this new novella is delicate and tender: the writer has an uncanny ability to walk the reader to the edge of hard topics, flirt with sentimentality, and then step back. The texts most often referenced that reveal her difference as a fiction writer, and significantly, her toughness, are Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield. The nativity story is another important intertext, but it’s no Hallmark version of that overused and overfamiliar narrative. Small Things Like These is a Christmas story with understated political and cultural resonances of a distinctively Irish kind, and exquisitely poignant for the version of charity offered. Keegan mounts a case for a very different version of community, and it doesn’t even need the label ‘Christian’ to be respected, and is moreover essentially secular.

In recent years, we’ve come to expect rage and anger in any discussion of the now heavily discredited Magdalen Orphanages and their practices of selling children to support a project of corralling girls who ‘erred’ in a misogynist and sexist and repressive Church and State regime (the system was not dismantled until the 1990s). In the case of Small Things Like These, the politics and the anger bookend the story but are not the story. They take the form of an epigraph taken from the Proclamation of the Irish Republic 1916, and a final Note on the Text which in 200+ words gives a searing description of the history of the laundries. The novella itself eschews anger and victimhood altogether, displacing it with a focus on an individual’s response to a profoundly difficult moral dilemma. Keegan offers an entirely new analysis of what makes a human life worth living, while deftly sketching in the lineaments of what it was like to live in a State that so rigidly defined morality.

Let me try to explain. What makes the novella so moving is its insistent focus on the anguished moral consciousness of Bill Furlong. He is a fundamentally decent man, father of five girls and problematically husband to an all-too-conventional woman who is able to turn her back on disturbing practices that threaten her security. Furlong can’t ignore what he learns is happening in the convent because he’s the son of a single mother who avoided incarceration in such an institution, and because he knew only filial love from his mother’s Protestant employer, Mrs Wilson. He knows that to buck the system is to buy a ‘world of trouble’ for himself and his current family, and especially his beloved girls who depend on the nuns for their education. However, experience has led him to the view that there’s no point in ‘being alive without helping one another’. The reader is offered an image of Furlong taking the abused shoeless child home through the snow, having just rescued her from incarceration (for the second time that he knows about) in an animal shelter. Her stopping to admire the donkey in the nativity scene, rather than the Baby Jesus, when she is lactating and mourning the loss of her baby, is exquisitely painful as it (without comment) underlines her childlikeness. But it’s hard not to feel with Furlong the thrill and joy of his heroism, a high point in an ‘unremarkable life’, except that it is clearly not an apt descriptor for his action or his epiphanic moment.

One inhabits Furlong’s inner monologue and his quotidian vocabulary, and it feels like a privilege to be there as he ponders, often with unease he can’t quite identify, his failures in action to date and what he ought to do. His touchstone is his mother’s employer, Mrs Wilson, and her simple caring behaviours to him – the pleasure she takes in his reading, her refusal to treat him as the ‘bastard’ that his peers label him, and her simple gift of books of which the child can appreciate only in retrospect. Her simple non-sectarian investment in him enabled him to rise above the low valuation of other townsfolk and schoolchildren who can’t read him other than through his illegitimacy. And it pays off in the ways he values each of his own girls for their differences. The vantage point of narration in this story enacts the crafting of a self-respecting, tentatively free-thinking man. His triumph is to know the fine line between disaster in life and freedom to be fully human and that it is quite arbitrary and perilous to negotiate. The yahoos that take an interest in his girls cause anxiety because he knows viscerally the inevitable trajectory for them if they depart from the prescribed path.

There are some subtle symbolic moves in this novella that accumulate: the River Barrow that draws the defeated involuntarily relinquishing girl/mother to self-immolation is ‘black as stout’ and swallows the snow, and it is in turn associated with an order of monks who levied heavy tolls until the populace revolted and drove them out. This is a situation, of course, which would seem to have some modern resonances. There’s a ‘December of [rapacious] crows’ that keep asserting themselves. They remind Furlong of the dapper young curate whom he dismisses as a potential ally for the child he is intent on rescuing from her abuse by the nuns. Both nuns and priests come in for oblique and understated satire for their hypocrisy. Well-informed Irish readers will easily fill in the gaps in the narrative – the underfunding of the nascent Irish state by its former colonial overlords and the convenience of puritanical sexual State mores which underwrote the nuns’ and priests’ ‘business model’, the prevalence and cover-up of incest especially in rural areas (see Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland by Diarmaid Ferriter) and the transatlantic trade in babies.

And Furlong’s business is also subtly symbolic and far from accidental: he’s a purveyor of coal, turf and logs. His business leads him into all classes in the town: he moves between the grand convent and the lower class houses which routinely make calls on his compassion in a bitter season when businesses are closing and laying off townspeople. What is superb in this narrative is its crafting of three different homes and their modus vivendi, and glimpses into others: Furlong’s own carefully protected bit embattled ménage, Mrs Wilson’s Ango-Irish sanctuary which protected his mother and himself from the depredations of the church, and the convent where life is easy for the nuns and girls have babies that are torn from them but paraded to demonstrate the ‘goodness’ and sweetness of their captors.

It’s not too long a bow to draw, I think, to compare this story in its ‘scrupulous meanness’ of style with the most admired novella of Joyce’s Dubliners, ‘The Dead’. It too focuses on the consciousness of a central character, on Gabriel’s unease at the party and later on his wife’s state of estrangement occasioned by a song. Like Gabriel, Furlong’s consciousness and empathy lead to an expansion of his emotional landscape whereby Gabriel encompasses, with heartache and humility, his wife’s earlier love of Michael Furey. Furlong for his part leans on the model of simple care provided by Ned and Mrs Wilson to resolve his ambivalence and take action regardless of the entrenched power structures that threaten his own family’s hard-won ease.

Another fascinating strand of this very disciplined story is the question of who Furlong’s father might be. It’s not resolved, but whether it’s one of the family or upper-crust guests of the Wilsons, or Ned, the other labourer on the property, does have a material impact on how one reads both Mrs Wilson and Ned’s investments in his emotional wellbeing. Either way, and despite the value Furlong places on his own children and family, the story does raise the (more modern) possibility that ‘family-making’ can be achieved in different ways. This in turn will affect one’s reading of his final actions in the novella.

This is a superb Christmas story, vastly more ambitious (in its understated way) and modern than A Christmas Carol, and one to delight and uplift even non-literary readers. It wears its (sophisticated) literariness lightly. And, what’s more, it promises to open up discussion about some deep wounds in the Irish national imagination: it’s not enough to excoriate the nuns and this novella suggests there were many colluders in the agony, and much strategic silence in the communities buttressing the system. That happened here in Australia too, I know.

I’ll be putting in an order for multiple copies of Small Things Like These for Christmas presents, and I wish it well in the Booker Prize. It’s been short-listed just in the last week or so. Will it get up? Perhaps not (its deeper resonances need a lot more particularised and nuanced historical knowledge than I suspect many of the judges will have), but how wonderful if it does.

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances has taught Literary Studies at the Australian National University and Deakin University since the early 1970s and continues in ‘retirement’ to do so for Bloomsday in Melbourne and U3A. She is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.

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