Off the Shelf: Small Things Like These
By Claire Keegan, Grove Press ISBN 978-0-8021-5874-1 2021 118 pp
Review by Terrence J. Kenneally
Small Things Like These is the second book by Claire Keegan reviewed in this space. Like her first book, Foster, Small Things is a novella, a short novel.
It is set in 1985 in a small Irish town. Its chief protagonist is Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, born to a sixteen-year-old unmarried mother, ostracized by her Catholic family, but employed by a Mrs. Wilson, who was Protestant, but unlike many Catholic parents of the time, did not turn her out when she became pregnant.
Bill is married to Eileen, and they have five daughters. The community that they live in is suffering the ravages of redundancies (layoffs) and poverty. While Bill and his family manage to survive, he does his best to help the less fortunate, much to the chagrin of his wife, who berates him for it.
When making a delivery to the local convent and Magdalen laundry, Bill uncovers some of the unwed girls and single mothers incarcerated there that have him concerned as to how they are being treated. Something hits him even harder when he discovers a traumatized young mother locked in a freezing coalhouse.
Bill cannot wipe his memory of the horrors of what he has seen as he wrestles with his conscience. He reflects on what his life might have been had Mrs. Wilson did not accept his mother, and in turn himself, after his mother died when he was twelve.
Eileen asks him to ignore it, drawing attention on the need to protect his family. A Mrs. Kehoe reminds him of the power and influence of the Catholic Church during this time.
Despite the fearful and compliant community that shields the sins of the church, Bill cannot walk away.
The denouement of the story is gripping. The novel is a damning indictment of the morally bankrupt Catholic Church in Ireland at the time. It evidences the cruel judgementalism of girls and women who got pregnant outside wedlock, their babies taken, their enslavement and the exploitation in the laundries. It is estimated approximately 30,000 women were imprisoned, until the laundries were finally closed in 1996. A hard, but poignant book that is a TOP SHELF read.
*Terrence J. Kenneally is an attorney and owner of Terrence J. Kenneally & Assoc. Co. in Rocky River, Ohio. He received his Masters Degree from John Carroll University in Irish Studies and has taught Irish Literature and History.