There is a moment in Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These (2022), where a father fills hot water bottles for his daughters. It is Christmastime in County Wexford, and it is snowing. Keegan writes of how Bill Furlong, the father, “pushes the air from each out in a rubbery little wheeze, before twisting the caps on tight.” He has just made their supper, “slabs of soda bread… which the girls buttered and spread with Marmite or lemon curd.” He is about to read their letters to the North Pole.
On the surface, Small Things Like These is a thing of beauty. Keegan tells Furlong’s story with an enchanting lilt, as he brings coal to the homes of his little town. The novel flows between tender family scenes, recollections of Furlong’s own childhood, and glimpses of the wintry Irish countryside. When Furlong’s daughter spots the “big, fat” Santa Claus at a street festival, and begins to cry, he assures her: “There’s no harm… ‘Tis just a man like myself, only in costume.” Thinking of Christmas as a young boy, Furlong remembers asking for a “jigsaw puzzle of a farm in five hundred pieces,” only to receive a nail brush and a bar of soap. Amidst these moments, Keegan writes of the “long November winds… that stripped the trees bare,” and “yews and evergreens dusted in frost.” The book is a fairy tale, and Keegan’s prose entrances the reader.
Once the reader is entranced, Keegan then reveals the truth; this is where Small Things Like These shines. Beneath the magical façade of New Ross, Furlong discovers the hidden abuse that plagues his hometown. The novel, set in 1985, enters the genre of historical fiction, and deftly sheds light on Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries: institutions funded by the Irish State and the Catholic Church, where “fallen” women and their children were enslaved into forced labour. In a twentieth century Ireland, “fallen” was defined broadly — if a woman was “sexually promiscuous”, pregnant out of wedlock, mentally ill, or deemed a burden to her family, the Laundries were an appropriate solution. There, iron gates would keep her apart from society. Authoritarian nuns hurled verbal abuse at the “wayward” prisoners, and subjected them to intense physical toil. I am appalled as I read that the final Laundry closed in 1996.
In a recent interview, Keegan proposed that Small Things Like These wasn’t wholly “about” the Magdalen Laundries. Rather, the institution “overshadows the community Bill Furlong lives in. It’s his atmosphere. It’s the environment.” The beautiful telling of family connection, the “small” acts of kindness and caring, come first; the tragic revelation completes the novel.
As Keegan paints suffering, the beauty of her language is not lost. Where a girl at the Laundry begs him to take her home, Furlong shows his “open, empty hands”; the image quietly reveals the helplessness of Irish communities, dwarfed by the monolithic Church and State. In another scene, Furlong finds a young mother locked in a coal shed, and as he places his woollen coat over her shoulders, she tells him of the infant son she seldom sees. Keegan does not shy away from representing atrocities, but approaches them with emotional sensitivity.
There are those who will deride Small Things Like These as sentimental. I feel that it tells the truth with subtlety, and accurately portrays the family-oriented warmth of Celtic culture. Keegan avoids the melodrama that pervades Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast (2021), where Catholic suffering is shown in epic skirmishes, and love in grand gestures; similarly, she avoids the hyperrealism of Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain (2020), where the social ills of Glaswegian society are detailed through graphic abuse and trauma. Keegan’s style in Small Things Like These is restrained, allowing the novel a delicate beauty that shimmers throughout.
Often, beautiful language can veil powerful meaning, touching the reader in a way that dry rhetoric cannot. Claire Keegan writes a tale as gorgeous as the snow-dusted evergreens of the little country town, and through this beauty, she uncovers what is real. As Keats noted, after all, beauty is truth, truth beauty.