It’s Reading Ireland Month and this was a quick win read in one or two great gulps, as I’m reading two books to review for Shiny New Books but wanted something to talk about here, too.

My lovely friend Meg kindly gave me her copy of this wonderful book in November 2022 (of the seven print books incoming in that month I have read and reviewed two, but that’s not that long ago, is it … ). I feel like everyone in the world has read this jewel of a novella, and it’s hard to say anything new about it, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and am glad I have read it at last.

Claire Keegan – “Small Things Like These”

(November 2022, from Meg)

Always it was the same, Furlong thought; always they carried mechanically on without pause, to the next job at hand. What would life he like, he wondered, if they were given time to think and reflect over things? Might their lives be different or much the same – or would they just lose the run of themselves? (p. 19)

As they carried on along and met more people Furlong did and did not know, he found himself asking was there any point in being alive without helping one another? Was it possible to carry on along through all the years, the decades, through an entire life, without once being brave enough to go against what was there and yet call yourself a Christian, and face yourself in the mirror? (p. 108)

Deceptively simply written, as so many great books are, and with an air of almost a fairy tale, this beautiful and perfect novella takes an ordinary man, runs us through his life, thoughts and emotions, gives him time, indeed, to think and reflect over things, shows us his community and his upbringing, subtle hints woven throughout (a kind man; a man who was himself the child of a single mother; a man who will give the change in his pockets to the child in poverty with an alcohol-abusing father; a man who worries if his daughters will be resilient enough for the modern world) and then has him do first one strange, out of character thing and then one absolutely extraordinary thing.

We’ve all read about a man finding someone in a coal shed when doing deliveries, but there is much more to it than that: a man who was adopted by a Protestant widow in a big house but whose mum died when he was a child still himself, and a Catholic convent on the hill with whisperings about its “training school” and who exactly does the laundry work. What’s shocking is that this story about the Magdalen laundries is set in 1985 and that the afterword explains the last one was closed in 1996, thousands of young women incarcerated and often worked to death, their babies taken from them to be adopted or to die.

So there’s a pretty modern world of shops and phone calls and offices and then a terrible place on the hill where the nuns clearly close rank and punish anyone who steps out of line. Who shut Sarah in the coal shed and what eventually happens to her we will never know; but she is named, she is seen, and Bill Furlong makes sure of it. The women characters are superbly done, especially Bill’s wife, Eileen, and the whole is enthralling, enchanting and heartbreaking. A Christmas tale that can be read any time of the year, a lovely Irish turn to the language and a very special book.

I read this book for Reading Ireland Month, hosted by Cathy746Books and it was the first of two I hope to read for the challenge.