Small Things Like These: Winner of the Orwell Prize
By Claire Keegan
Claire Keegan’s tender tale of hope and quiet heroism is both a celebration of compassion and a stern rebuke of the sins committed in the name of religion.
It is 1985, in an Irish town. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, faces his busiest season. As he does the rounds, he feels the past rising up to meet him – and encounters the complicit silences of a small community controlled by the Church.Tweet
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Another thought provoking book.
An interesting look into 80s Ireland and how religion shapes lives for those that live there. Short but powerful.
I loved this book, it's so poignant and beautiful. It's so short that I read it in an afternoon but it's impact is long lasting. The characters are so relate-able and the messages are very important. The human ability to normalise and live with pain, to not acknowledge suffering and some people's bravery in challenging this.
Our December 2022 read and very popular
Elaine - Scunthorpe Pageturners Library Bookclub Review
What would you do if you found a bare footed, teenage, slave locked in a coal shed on a freezing cold, snowy morning at the place that is supposed to offer love and support for those less fortunate than you?
This was the dilemma faced, not once, but twice, by Bill Furlong when he found Sarah had been deliberately locked in the coal shed and left to starve and / or freeze to death.
Set in 1985, a coal merchant’s daily life struggles with a wife, five daughters and his own business, questioning the purpose of life. A small town ‘ influenced’ to the point of controlling, by a town convent who ‘look after’ unmarried young mothers.
The first time, Bill did not help Sarah. He was warned against ‘helping’ and ‘to leave things alone’ by people in the town otherwise things would be made difficult for him, his business and his daughters.
However, Sarah played on Bill’s conscious. He remembered that someone had given his mother an opportunity when she was in a similar situation as Sarah and if it hadn’t been for this kindness, he would not have had the fortunate life he had now.
An open ended 110 page short story. Initially I just did not like this book, although I did like and appreciate how beautifully and accurately written the descriptions of the characters, the scenery, the daily life were. The way the family prepare for Christmas was similar to my own in the 1980’s. Encouraged by my book club friends to read the book again, I did. The storyline, although grim, is a very thought provoking moral dilemma and so sad because elements of the story are based on true happenings. Bill abided by the Season of Goodwill, despite the many consequences he would face in the long term afterwards. At least it wasn’t on his conscience he left a child to die.
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My review. Denise H. Scunthorpe Pageturners.
The book set in Ireland is an interesting and thought provoking read. It has a lovely lyrical flow and discriptive language. Although it is set in 1985 it felt much earlier. The story has a Dickensian feel to it with a nod to The Christmas Carol and the story unfolds in the weeks leading upto Christmas. The main character Bill Furlong is a good, hard working and family man. His job as a coal merchant takes him to the local convent where he first meets Sarah one of the inmates.I use the word inmates deliberately with its prisoner connotations, as that was what she and the other poor girls were. The catholic church was all powerful. The scandal of the Magdeline Laundries is the background to this storyl. It is beyond tragic that these did not cease to exist until 1996.The people of the town including Bill's wife are all of the same mind when it comes to the nuns and what goes on at the convent. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. That is all except Bill. It was due to his upbringing by a single mother (also called Sarah and the benevolence of a local widow that Bill understood that his mother could have ended up in one of these places. He was not taken in by the Mother Superior and veiled threats to his beloved daughters. Dispite the concequences to himself and family he does the right thing and rescues Sarah.
The message I took from the story is evil happens when good men do nothing. Thank God (but in this story not the Catholic Church bit) for people like Bill.
Tightly plotted and tender, ‘Small Things Like These’ is a story about choices. For our protagonist Bill Furlong, the choice he has to make could upset the fabric of his social, financial, and religious standing.
While slow to start, the real meat of the story begins almost halfway through the book when he finds a young woman - barefoot, head shaved, asking about her baby - in a coal shed. But what we have already learnt about Bill, and the economically deprived town he hails from, informs the moral quandary of the final half. On first read, I glossed some of the details about Bill; on second read, I pored over every word.
As a man who is plagued by the knowledge of how close he came to a different life, he knows just how being offered a lifeline can affect the trajectory of a person’s life. ‘Was there any point in being alive without helping one another?’ He questions. His wife, mirroring the consensus of the town, counters, ‘If you want to get on in life, there’s things you have to ignore, so you can keep on…’
The brevity of the book is impressive in its ability to say so much with so little. You get the sense that the author has chosen every word very carefully, to maximum effect. She weaves in and out of time, thought, and action effortlessly. The reader questions their own response to injustice alongside Bill.
While Bill’s arc closes with the decision we hoped he would make, despite the thinly veiled threats and the sure knowledge of the effect this will have on his family, the novel stops at his front door. It feels initially like stopping mid-stride – the real story appears to be in the aftermath. However, in a town where everybody has turned a blind eye, knowing the journey he took to make the decision is enough. Especially when no one else has made it.
I look forward to reading this fantastic little novel all over again.
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'Tis no affair of mine'is repeatedly the attitude of entire communities as cruelty takes place amongst them. The narrative is tense atmospheric and restrained as Furlong's compassion for a stranger is mixed with anxieties of bringing hardships on his own family. The ending is deliberately open ended encouraging all of us to question our own response to known injustices.
I found the novel slow to start but was impressed with how moving it was.
The subject matter is handled with sensitivity but does not hold back from making some judgements. The Journey for Bill Furlong from seemingly happy family man to a man with a desire to do right by the mistreated young girls he encounters at the local convent laundry is delivered with great characterization.His common background shared with the children at the convent appears to grant him an empathy lacking in the local community.He is aware of the risks to his and his families livelihood but decides to rescue one of the girls anyway. This is the point at which the novel ends which actually surprised me.Leave them wanting more is the phrase and this lives up to that.
Thinking back I realise I haven't mentioned the wonderful detail of the community and family that is imparted in a scant 116 pages and how well the themes of morality and a community being complicit by ommision was conveyed. But I still wanted more . I do not often re read a novel but here I go again.
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Jamie's Review of Claire Keegan's "Small things like These" for "Scunthorpe Pageturners"
A fascinating character study set against the background of the Magdelene Laundries and the partnership between church and state which saw young mothers separated from their children on an industrial scale.
Where to Start? The short length,the lyricism,the shock at the story being set in the mid 1980's.When with it's subject matter people would have expected it to be in the 1870's.
I thought the novel's prose was wonderfully lyrical in it's descriptions of characters and their everyday lives but also sadly timeless in its depiction of a community failing in its moral duty.Driven in no small part to fear of those, whose influence could cause unemployment in a time of recession.
Bill Furlong is a character seemingly forged from the effects of outside prejudices and from good hearted tolerance .
This duality is expressed through an inner battle with his own sense of purpose and of what is right from wrong.
He is aware that his unmarried Mother's circumstances and his own, mirror the plight of the young women and children taken in by the local convent.And that but for the home provided for them by a local widow could have been their lot in life.
He has by dint of hard work a relatively stable employment (as a coal Merchant) and a loving family of a wife and 5 Daughters.But is all too aware that in difficult times no job is safe.
His road to Damascus final walk in the novel, is set in motion from encounters with two young girls at the local convent and their all too apparent mistreatment at the hands of the Nuns living there.
With a novel of this Short length though,you need to be aware of every word.
As you can be sure not one is there without a reason .Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol" is referenced early on and tied into Furlongs sense of self worth as the first book he read to teach himself spelling and perhaps his sense of morality as well.
"Small things like these" has a Dickensian concern with Social justice and how kindness and love can change lives.
His encounter with the Mother Superior after finding the girl Sarah locked in the Coal Shed. Where she denigrates his daughters by inferring he must be disappointed not to have a son to carry his name.And then to not so subtlety try to force his silence by threatening their future attendance at the local School,brings Furlongs inner self to the surface and his open rebellion begins.
His past literally fights his present and he feels himself a hypocrite for not standing up for the girls.It is no coincidence the second girl Sarah has the same name as his mother.
The novel brilliantly conveys the sense of wrongness felt and ignored by the town and to some extent Furlong himself.
His attitude is counter pointed by that of his wife Elaine (which echo's the local community)who when confronted with his description of encountering the first girl ,then gives the practical reasons why they cannot get involved.
This is reinforced during his later conversation with the local cafe owner Mrs Kehoe. Who appears to know the details of his private encounter with the Mother Superior.Even to the extent of mentioning a possible effect to his girls Schooling .
" Surely they've only as much power as we give them " shows his growing dissent and perhaps the seed of his Journey back to the convent.
At this point in the novel the probable identify of his father is inadvertently suggested by a stranger and is a further reminder to Furlong of the everyday secrets a community can keep.
Christmas Eve see's Furlong going through the last Christmas working day ritual and then visiting the local shops to pick up his wife's present.The buying of his wife's shoe's perhaps prompting his lyrically described journey back to the Convent.Where Furlong finds the girl Sarah locked in the coal shed again.
He then decides which road his life is to follow by taking Sarah to his home.
The long walk back through the town centre encountering folk who question him about the unshod girl,is as much about guilty conscience as anything else.They know a reckoning could be on its way.
The final lines of the novel brilliantly convey both the joy and fear of doing the right thing, with the certain knowledge that there will be a price to pay. His fearful optimism put me in mind of the Beatle's anthem "All you need is Love"
but the journey is to the doorway of home and no further.
Claire Keegan ends the Story here
When many authors would choose to explore the repercussions of Furlongs actions.
But Furlong has chosen his path and we as readers can choose ours.
Either to imagine various outcomes for the characters or as in my case,marvel at the multi layered concision of a remarkable and compassionate novel.Which can probably only be appreciated with many re reads.
Thank you Claire Keegan
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A beautifully written book deceptive in its brevity as it has a powerful message. Her characterisation especially of Bill is very moving. Faced with the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church and the inertia of his fellow townsfolk Claire Keegan describes a man who can no longer live with what is going on. I read it twice and the second time I picked up on some throwaway lines that I had not on first reading. The mayor drives a Mercedes indicating his standing, the nuns are described as congregating with the wealthier residents of the town at the Christmas lights switch on apparently not bothering with those in need of Christian charity. I also hadn't picked up on the veiled threat that Bill's daughters may not get into the school if he stepped out of line. These people represented the status quo they did not want their lives changed whatever was going on and they are complicit in the terrible treatment of the girls at the convent.
For such a short book there is a lot to digest. Who knows what happens after Bill gets home with the girl, but I rather hope for his sake he was part of the start of the end of the Magdalen laundries.