Claire Keegan, award-winning author of two collections of short stories and a novella, now gives us her best work yet. "Small Things Like These" is a short, wrenching, thoroughly brilliant novel mapping the path of one man's conscience, its torment and vacillation between two courses of action. Either one bears a price.
It is 1985 and Bill Furlong, 39, married father of five daughters, is a fuel merchant in New Ross, County Wexford, in Ireland. His mother, pregnant with him at 16 while in domestic service, was unexpectedly lucky in her employer, a Protestant widow who treated her and the child with kindness and generosity.
Though Furlong has risen from being spat upon in the schoolyard to owning a modest business, he is keenly aware that it "would be the easiest thing in the world to lose everything." Indeed, the fate his mother escaped is embodied in the nearby "training school" run by nuns for girls who, imprisoned, work in the convent's commercial laundry.
There are murmurings in the town about what goes on there, misgivings quelled by the righteous thought that the girls are "of low character … doing penance by washing stains out of the dirty linen." Whatever the case, the signal fact is that the nuns are formidable operators with "a finger in every pie" and to go beyond furtive talk would exact a stiff penalty.
Already uneasy about the plight of these girls, Furlong, delivering coal to the convent, finds one of them locked in the coal shed, cowering and asking where her baby is. When he presents her to the nuns, the Mother Superior puts on a grotesque demonstration of comforting the girl who, she suggests, must have been locked up and forgotten during a game with the other girls. She goes on to remark that two of Furlong's daughters go to the nearby Catholic girls school and that no doubt he intends his other daughters to follow in time. It's the only decent school around, but, she notes, space is limited. She hands him a Christmas envelope containing a 50-pound note. Message received.
Furlong tells his wife about this, and she, a practical woman, warns him to let it alone. But in a town monitored by sharp eyes, gossip has already seized on the episode and Furlong detects nervous hostility against him. Still, he remains troubled thinking of the girl and of what his mother could have endured were it not for the widow's compassion. He considers doing something, but knows the misfortune he will bring down on his family and business if he does.
Keegan casts the movement of Furlong's thoughts amid the goodness of home, the life of the town, and the reality of the convent's prestige, prosperity and menacing power. She slips in little details that hint ineffably at great import. Subtle reverberations and stray observations mark Furlong's journey toward a never certain decision. Spare and potent, this is a remarkable story about a terrible crime and a riven conscience.
Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, also reviews for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.
Small Things Like These
By Claire Keegan.
Publisher: Grove Press, 128 pages, $23.