Set in 1985 in an Irish seaside town, Booker Prize long-listed Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan feels like it might as well have been set in 1885. We meet protagonist Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, as he delivers goods to his freezing clients in the run up to Christmas. Poor but happily married with five bright daughters, Furlong takes nothing for granted. Bill was born outside wedlock and owes his relatively harmonious upbringing to the kindness and acceptance of his mother’s employer. Up at the abbey, not everyone has had the same luck.
Perhaps you have heard of the Magdalen Laundries, a string of laundries set up by the Catholic Church across Ireland where ‘fallen’ girls and women were forced to work for free under terrible duress, their out-of-wedlock babies taken from them and in some cases even murdered. It turns out the local abbey runs a Magdalen laundry, a well-known ‘secret’ in the local town which its residents have chosen to ignore. Absorbed by the daily toil of work, Furlong has been one of them until he comes face to face with a young Magdalen worker and, ultimately, his own family history.
It will take you an afternoon to read this Dickensian little book, which despite its brutal undercurrents, has a sweet tenderness. If anything, I wish Keegan had taken the reader deeper into the abbey and Magdalen laundry life. Small Things Like These certainly made me want to know more about this dark chapter of scarily recent (the last laundry was closed in 1996) Irish history. It appears not all aspects of Dickensian life vanished with Dickens.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan is published by Faber & Faber, 128 pages.