At 116 pages, “Small Things Like These” by Claire Keegan is the shortest book ever to be nominated for the Booker Prize. Don’t let the size fool you; the book is quiet and contemplative but stands out with its exposure of a tragic reality that threatens to rock the Irish town of New Ross.
Set in 1985, “Small Things Like These” follows Bill Furlong, a coal merchant who lives a good life with his wife and five daughters. The scene is set as Christmas is approaching, and he’s busy with work and his family. “(Furlong) isn’t someone who says much,” Keegan said in her Booker Prize Q&A. “He’s a most unwilling narrator.” With a narrator who carefully chooses what to reveal — and what not to reveal — you’re asked to read between the lines, making for a pleasant read.
Furlong’s quiet life is unsettled when he makes a delivery to the local convent. While there, he notices nuns who lock the door from the inside, girls begging him to help them escape and, most disturbingly, a girl left freezing in a locked coal shed. To Furlong’s knowledge, the convent serves as a training school for girls and a laundry business. In reality, it’s a prison for women who have children out of wedlock.
Going into the novel, I didn’t know much about Ireland or its history as a Catholic republic, so I wasn’t prepared to read about something as horrifying and deeply misogynistic as the Magdalene laundries. As Keegan explains in her note on the text, these laundries were funded and run by the Catholic Church and the Irish government until 1996, and the women sent there were subject to forced labor, poor living conditions and even death. The misconduct of the Catholic Church is well known in the United States, and as someone who grew up Catholic, I can attest to the Church’s questionable stances and beliefs. The unexpected element of the Magdalene laundries weighed just as heavily on me while reading as it did on the protagonist.
Furlong “came from nothing” himself, born to an unmarried, teenage mother. But a wealthy widow named Mrs. Wilson gave his mother work as a maid — an act of kindness that continues to shape his life. He sympathizes with the girls he encounters because, after all, his mother may have been in the same position had it not been for Mrs. Wilson. As Furlong uncovers the truth about the convent, he comes to a choice: stay complicit, like the rest of his community, or do the right thing and speak out against the Church.
“Small Things Like These” is the story of a hardworking man and a choice that could alter his life forever. In a way, the book is simple. Even Keegan’s prose is simple; the book is filled with descriptions of Furlong’s work and home environment and the coldness of Ireland around Christmastime. But that’s not to say it doesn’t pack an emotional punch. In the final pages of the book, Keegan leaves readers with thoughtful questions about life and faith: “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?”
Daily Arts Writer Ava Seaman can be reached at email@example.com.