Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 02/19/24 12:10 PM

Book review: Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

SMALL THINGS LIKE THESE by Claire Keegan. Faber Books.

This slim volume punches way, way above its weight, and leaves the reader full of emotions, the way a really good book does. The story takes us to a small village in Ireland where people are all eking out an extremely hard living in extreme weather conditions.

It is yet another cold and bleak winter upon them in Wexford County in 1985 , and things are no less hard for our protagonist William – Bill- Furlong, purveyor of coal and timber to the village and its vicinity. Bill has a wife and five young girls, and it strikes the reader forcefully when he reflects that sometimes living day to day can be a hard plough to furrow. Despite that, he is educating his girls at the convent, St Margaret’s, sending one for piano practice, another for choir practice and basically, they are a family content with their lot.

As day follows day, and Bill sees to all work before the end- of- year holidays, we know, we just know, that something is going to come along and disrupt the hard but even tenor of his life. And when it does, it does so quietly, almost gradually but still serves a sucker punch to both Bill and the reader`s stomach. Once Bill`s conscience stirs him into action, we know things are not going to be the same again.

Keegan employs the simplest, most direct manner of writing but such is the power of her spare style that the reader is fully sympathetic of Bill Furlong before the end of the first chapter and fully empathic with how he views the village, its people and the suggestion of sinister things going on up at the convent. However, Billy`s wife Eileen`s words stay in his head: “If you want to get on in life, there’s things you have to ignore, so you can keep on.“

The book`s core deals with the infamous Magdalene laundries of Ireland, and the abuse that went on there, aided by a skittish populace fully cognizant of the power of the Church, and by the authorities who looked away. An estimated 30,000 Irish women were incarcerated between the 18th and 20th centuries in these institutions which were run and financed by the Catholic Church in concert with the Irish state, and the last of the Magdalene laundries closed only in 1996.

Read Claire Keegan`s restrained but powerful story, and then read up on the pitiful state of the Magdalene laundries.

Sheila Kumar • February 19, 2024

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