This novella by the Irish writer, Claire Keegan, is a small masterpiece. The story centers around Bill Furlong, a coal merchant, as he makes deliveries during the Christmas season in Northern Ireland in 1985. During one of his stops he encounters, at the town's convent, an ugly truth about the nuns' treatment of the unwed mothers who live in their care. In spare, sturdy prose that is as rhythmic and sensuous as music, Keegan tells the story of this long-married father of five, a good provider for his family, a fair and generous employer who runs a steady, dependable business making an uncharacteristically reckless decision that will endanger everything he has achieved. The reader is privileged, in this deeply interior and beautifully observed story, to see out of Furlong's eyes as he drives about town. It is a third person narrative that chronicles a man's journey towards a dangerous action. Central to this journey is his backstory. Furlong himself was born to an unwed mother who worked as a domestic. He never knew his father and routinely goes through the possible candidates, yet one evening he stumbles upon the answer when he stops to visit a friend and that information satisfies a hunger he's had since boyhood.
You can read the novella in an hour, but if you're like me, you'll want to read it a second time merely to experience, once again, the seamless transition from interior rumination to a final, irrevocable action that will unravel all of the seams Furlong has carefully stitched into his life and the lives of his wife and children. Keegan's remarkable accomplishment here is the believable, utterly engrossing journey Furlong makes towards his decision. After he has done what his conscience bid, he walks through the town on a snowy Christmas eve past all of the celebrating people. It may be the most triumphant march in all of contemporary literature. And because Furlong feels not just pure joy, but a mixture of joy and fear as he contemplates what might come next, it rings true.
How does Keegan make us believe this change in a man's personality? The first thing she does is establish the basis of Furlong's character, the circumstances of his birth and childhood, his role as employer and delivery man, and his orderly family life with five daughters and a protective, hovering wife. But more important than that, is the quality of Furlong's perceptions. He's a man who looks out at the world and sees details that a less outward-directed man would miss.
It is the time of "The Troubles." Money is in short supply. People don't have enough to eat. "Furlong had seen a young schoolboy drinking the milk out of the cat's bowl behind the priest's house...the dole ques were getting longer and there were men out there who couldn't pay their ESB bills, living in houses no warmer than bunkers, sleeping in their overcoats" (13).
One evening he tells his wife that he gave the young son of the town drunk his pocket change and a lift in his lorry and she replies, "'You know some of these bring the hardship on themselves?'
'Tis not the child's doing surely.'
'Sinnott [the boy's father] was stotious at the phone box on Tuesday.'
'The poor man,' Furlong said, 'whatever ails him.'
'Drink is what ails him. If he had any regard for his children, he'd not be going around like that. He'd pull himself out of it.'
'Maybe the man isn't able.'
'I suppose....Always there's one that has to pull the short straw'" (11).
The conversation ends there, but it's a defining moment because it establishes Furlong as a man who can feel empathy and his wife as a woman too focused on propriety to feel the suffering of others. Though that dialogue may be the only time we hear his wife speak, it establishes her hardened nature, but in an elegant, casual manner, without making a direct statement. The "one that has to pull the short straw" is all the reader needs to understand her sense of the natural order of things.
The conversation also sets up the essential argument between two intimately connected people, letting us understand that as Furlong performs the charitable act that he will never be able to undo, he is risking his marriage. The great kindness that was shown his mother when she gave birth to him means he cannot turn away from the suffering of an unmarried girl with a baby. And because the woman who offered safe harbor to him and his mother risked social condemnation herself, Furlong understands he must choose the same path. He will not be able to live with himself if he doesn't.
Though Keegan skillfully guides the reader, she is artfully indirect, always, providing clues in body language and detail so nothing interrupts an atmosphere of escalating menace. At the convent, when Furlong knocks on the door, having found a young girl locked in the coal shed when he was making a delivery, the reader is shown multiple levels: the spoken words that convey one meaning and the body movements and facial expressions that reveal the opposite. The Mother Superior performs a show of concern, even a false cheerfulness, yet there's no mistaking the warning snaking beneath her graciousness.
The powerful last chapter ends with a Christmas Eve walk through the snowy city. When Furlong meets celebrating people he has known "for the greater part of his life"(111) he doesn't try to explain. White snow and black coal are in dramatic contrast as he runs the gauntlet towards home. He has done what he knew was necessary, but now the future is unclear. Still, he carried "on along with the excitement in his heart matched by the fear of what he could not yet see" (111).
Keegan, Claire. Small Things Like These. New York: Grove Press, 2021.
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September 10, 2022