Great literature is properly immune to spoilers, having at its core an ambiguity of truth sourced directly from the complex and often contradictory essences of life itself. It isn’t enough that something dramatic, or even beautiful, happens in a story: what matters is that whatever happens resonates in an unprescribed way with our emotions and physical sensations.
In describing Claire Keegan’s new work of fiction, Small Things Like These – her first offering since Foster (2010) – I must go to the book’s final picture, of a man approaching his own front door on a bitterly cold Christmas Eve in the small Irish village of New Ross, a box with new shoes for his wife under one arm and a barefoot young mother, a brutalised victim of the town’s Magdalene laundry, supported on his other.
Keegan is an intensely visual writer for whom the particulars of place and precise circumstance work to authenticate the inner lives of her protagonists. The man in the Christmas snow is the novella’s central character, Bill Furlong, a middle-aged coal purveyor, upon whose good character the tension of the narrative hinges. When Furlong, who as a child was raised on the charity of a rich family, chances upon the violence perpetrated on pregnant young women in the local convent laundry, his thirst for light forces him to act.
The novella is a portrait of this non-drinking Irish man, father and husband, as he struggles to align the moral obligation he owes to the gift of his redeemed destiny with his search for a clarified identity. Through the lens of Bill Furlong’s struggle, Keegan presents us with a midwintered cultural landscape ranging from sky grey to soot black. The book’s allusiveness and brevity of form serve only to intensify the sharpness of its idiomatic realism.
Small Things Like These is written in a diamond-cut prose. With Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as its conscious antecedent, Keegan’s new work establishes a palpable sense of state-sanctioned violence and of how fine the line can be between compassion and control, altruism and personal breakdown. Though the book is set specifically in the depressed rural southern Ireland of 1985, its portraiture of family, work and community ritual could well be from the pages of Mary Lavin, John McGahern or John Synge. This sense of local inheritance, both literary and tragic, really clinches the book’s power.Faber, 128pp, $22.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2022 as "Small Things Like These, Claire Keegan".
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