By Simon Demetriou
One’s response to Claire Keegan’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel Small Things Like These perhaps hinges on how a reader responds to the protagonist, Bill Furlong, wondering ‘was there any point in being alive without helping one another?’
The novel is a touching exploration of what it means to do the right thing when faced with competing interests to consider. Bill Furlong is a coal merchant who at Christmas in 1985 is forced into making a choice: he can save a life and sacrifice much of what he has worked to build for himself, his wife and his five daughters; or he can look the other way and keep prospering.
Furlong’s dilemma over whether charity begins and ends at home, or whether a man must follow his conscience in the face of evil doing, is sparked when he has to deliver an order of coal to the convent that dominates the town of New Ross in Ireland’s County Wexford. The convent adjoins the girls’ school attended by Furlong’s daughters, though the two are ominously separated by a high wall topped with broken glass. Within the convent, there is a ‘training school’ about which only rumours circulate, and a laundry with a shining reputation – one of Ireland’s now infamous Magdalen laundries, in which thousands of girls and women were incarcerated, exploited and lost over centuries’ of state-and-church-sponsored brutality.
Keegan’s writing is spare and evocative; in under 100 pages she brings the town of New Ross to vivid life. We see Furlong’s encounters with barbers, tea-ladies and a mother superior who isn’t shy of expressing both her sexism and xenophobia, all set against the intimacy of the kitchen and bedroom he shares with his wife Eileen. The reader feels for Eileen too, as she attempts to persuade her husband that ‘there’s things you have to ignore, so you can keep on’; her role in the family is domestic, so why shouldn’t her priorities be domestic also?
Ultimately, this reader could not help but be moved by the understated nobility that Keegan invests in her protagonist as he makes a decision whose consequences resonate beyond the end of the novel. Bill gives his life meaning by helping another in a Christmas story that makes deliberate allusion to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield. The triumph of Keegan’s book is that she creates a character who could so easily lapse into Dickensian caricature, but gives him a complicated, ambiguous inner-life that elevates him to the status of the authentically ordinary – an extraordinary achievement.