Small Things Like These by the Irish novelist Claire Keegan is my Book of the Year. There have been several books especially by women authors that have ‘spoken’ to me but this one hit a deep chord. I am late to the party in the sense that this novel, published in 2021, has already been short-listed for the Booker Prize and won the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award back in May. There have also been several other gongs for this haunting work including the Orwell prize. It is less than 100 pages in length, so little longer than a novella but it throws such a powerful punch, and its graceful writing has stayed with me, resonating, taking me back to my own Irish childhood, looking at many of my memories anew.
The story is set late in the twentieth century in a small Irish town during a bitter December. Its principal character is Bill Furlong, a caring family man with five daughters who owns his own modest coal and timber business. A merchant of coal, anthracite, logs. These he delivers to his customers himself in his rather antiquated lorry. His yard is manned by a small crew of men who work for him. He is a kind boss and there are good vibes between them all.
Bill ‘came from nothing’. He was born to a young woman, little more than a girl, who at the age of sixteen fell pregnant. She was a domestic servant in a big house on the outskirts of the town where Bill Furlong lives. The house was owned by a well-heeled Protestant woman, Mrs Wilson. Mrs Wilson took pity on the serving girl and did not dismiss her when she got pregnant. She kept her on and allowed her son to remain with her. Bill Furlong grew up on the estate, a happy child. He was never told the identity of his father who he assumed was possibly a gentlemen of some standing related in some way to the kind, widowed Mrs Wilson.
The novel takes place in the days leading up to Christmas in 1985. Bill is exceptionally busy with the orders, his deliveries. These include a load of logs to the local convent. I don’t want to give too much away of this marvellous story, but at the convent he discovers a girl locked in an outdoor coal shed. She is freezing, barely-clad, barefoot and traumatised. He is shocked by her presence there and by the condition of her. He releases her, leads her across to the main convent building and asks the nuns to take care of her. Little does he yet realise that it was the holy sisters who have locked the girl in the unheated shed.
From the eighteenth century onwards, religious…
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