Author, Book review, Claire Keegan, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction

‘Small Things Like These’ by Claire Keegan

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 73 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

Claire Keegan is a well regarded Irish writer best known for her short stories, which include the collections Antarctica (1999) and Walk the Blue Fields (2007), and her novella Foster (2010), which you can read for free on the New Yorker website if you wish to get a feel for her writing.

Her latest book, Small Things Like These, is being marketed as a novel, but it’s only 73 pages in length and feels more like an extended short story. It’s written in Keegan’s typical economical prose, but addresses big themes and big emotions.

It’s a beautiful portrait of a man carrying out a small act of defiance against the Catholic Church at a time when it controlled almost every facet of Irish life.

Ireland in the 1980s

The story is set in Ireland in 1985, a period of economic deprivation and political instability, when  “the young people were emigrating, leaving for London and Boston, New York”.

Bill Furlong is a hard-working coal merchant who is married with five young daughters. But he’s stuck in a rut and is beginning to wonder what his life is all about. Christmas is approaching and there’s a lot to do to get all his deliveries completed on time.

What was it all for? Furlong wondered. The work and the constant worry. Getting up in the dark and making the deliveries, one after another, the whole day long, then coming home in the dark and trying to wash the black off himself and sitting into a dinner at the table and falling asleep before waking in the dark to meet a version of the same thing, yet again. Might things never change or develop into something else, or new? Lately, he had begun to wonder what mattered, apart from Eileen and the girls. He was touching forty but didn’t feel himself to be getting anywhere or making any kind of progress and could not but sometimes wonder what the days were for.

His mind keeps returning to his upbringing by a single mother, who was a domestic servant in a Big House when she fell pregnant at 16. At this time, unwed mothers were condemned and their children stigmatised. Bill was fortunate that Mrs Wilson, the widow who owned the Big House, was kindly and maternal.

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.

But even now, all these decades later, he still feels tarnished by the knowledge that he was born out of wedlock and that he has no idea who his father is. The only real male role model in his life has been Ned, the farmhand at the Big House, with whom he still keeps in touch.

Where was his father now? Sometimes, he caught himself looking at older men, trying to find a physical resemblance, or listening out for some clue in the things people said. Surely some local knew who his father was – everyone had a father – and it didn’t seem likely that someone hadn’t ever said a word about it in his company for people were bound, he knew, to reveal not only themselves but what they knew, in conversation.

A visit to the convent

The pivotal moment in the story happens when Bill makes a delivery to the local convent — “a powerful-looking place on the hill at the far side of the river” — run by the Good Shepherd nuns. The nuns run a training school for girls on-site, along with a successful laundry business. Bill is aware of local rumours that the girls are of “low character” and that they work demanding hours in the laundry as a form of penance, but he has no proof, and what would he do about it anyway?

But when he discovers a thin, dishevelled and clearly frightened teenage girl locked in the coal shed, he begins to join the dots. Aware of his own five daughters at home and the knowledge of his own mother’s fate, he decides it’s time to do something to help. He is, in effect, paying forward Mrs Wilson’s kindness.

Small Things Like These is a short, powerful read, one that will linger in the mind for a long time. The author has dedicated it to the “women and children who suffered time in Ireland’s Magdalen laundries” and her afterword provides a brief history for those who aren’t aware of these scandalous Catholic institutions that housed unwed mothers and abused them.

Small Things Like These will be published in the UK on 21 October 2021 and in the US and Canada on 30 November 2021. In Australia, the Kindle edition will be available on 19 October.

Author, Book review, Claire Keegan, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, Publisher, Setting, short stories

‘Antarctica’ by Claire Keegan

Antarctica

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 224 pages; 2000.

Reviewing a collection of short stories is always fraught with difficulty. Should you review every story? Just concentrate on one? Or give an overall flavour of the book as a whole?

If I was to concentrate on the latter, I’d say that Claire Keegan’s Antarctica, first published in 1999, is an extraordinary collection of 15 stories, beautifully consistent throughout and with not a dud one in the mix.

It is without a doubt the best collection I’ve ever read. That’s probably not saying much, because I’m not exactly a connoisseur of short story collections and have only read a handful in my time. But even comparing this to Simon Van Booy’s Love Begins in Winter, which I read, reviewed and loved last year, Antarctica had a stronger impact on me.

Her prose style is typically Irish, by which I mean it’s sparse, rhythmic and unflinching. But her story-telling is as rich as any novel. Keegan somehow manages to make the people in her short stories fully alive and authentic. You identify with them, care for them — and all this happens within the first paragraph or two.

The opening paragraph of Where the Water’s Deepest is a good example:

The au pair sits on the edge of the pier this night, fishing. Beside her, cheese she salvaged from the salad bowl at dinner, her leather sandals. She removes the band from her ponytail and shakes her hair loose. Leftover smells of cooking and bath suds drift down from the house through the trees. She slides a cube of cheese on to the hook and casts. Her wrist is good. The line makes a perfect arc in the air, drops down and vanishes. Slowly she reels it towards her, where the water’s deepest. She’s caught a nice perch this way before.

And while the stories are essentially tales of ordinary people, usually living in rural Ireland, with one or two in the southern states of America (I believe Keegan was briefly based in Louisiana at one point), something extraordinary tends to happen to them.

There’s not much happiness in these stories though. Familial relationships are at best strained. There’s a lot of women struggling with their lot. There’s a lot of thwarted love, too. But nothing ever feels false or melodramatic. There’s a quiet, haunting quality to every tale, with every little (and big) drama told in the same calm, understated manner.

I was particularly taken with the opening story, Antarctica, about a happily married woman who “wondered how it would feel to sleep with another man”. When she goes away for a weekend by herself on the pretense of Christmas shopping, she meets a man — “red complexion, a gold chain dangling inside a Hawaiian print shirt, mud-coloured hair” — in a hotel bar and proceeds to go to bed with him.

There’s a delicious, illicit feel to the story, and even though you know the unnamed “wild middle-class” woman is behaving wrongly you kind of want to cheer her on. And while the one-night stand turns out to be a roaring success — “‘You’re a very generous lover,’ she said afterwards, passing him the cigarette. ‘You’re very generous full stop'” — there’s a price to pay for transgressing the codes of marriage.

It’s a chilling tale and it’s told in just 19 pages. Other writers could spin an entire 400-page novel out of the same plot and probably not achieve the same level of creepiness. I read it and knew I was in the hands of an accomplished, intelligent short story writer — and I suddenly wanted to eat up the entire book as fast as my eyes would let me. Alas, I rationed myself to one story a night. If that’s not a good sign, I don’t know what is.

Antarctica won the Rooney Prize for Literature in 2000.