Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan – review

Published by Faber

Publication date 21 October 2021

Source – gift

It is 1985, in an Irish town. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, faces into his busiest season. As he does the rounds, he feels the past rising up to meet him — and encounters the complicit silences of a people controlled by the Church.

Winter and coal merchant Bill Furlough is busy, ensuring fuel arrives at the homes of the residents in his town. He reflects on his growing family and as he does goes back to memories of his own unorthodox childhood which in turn makes him face the truth of what is being left unsaid about the convent at the edge of town.

Bill Furlough is a marvellous character. Quiet, solid, dependable, raised by a Catholic single mother, in a Protestant household, an almost unheard of thing. He is not a product of his past. He has worked hard to get to where he is, running his own business. Hard working, wanting the best for his children, not taking money from the less well off families at Christmas who can’t afford to pay for the fuel he is delivering. He kicks himself for not doing more, for not giving the gifts he is given to those who have less than him. He doesn’t stick his head above the parapet. He goes about his daily life quietly and without question. Until one day he doesn’t.

Bill reflects on his life, on his past, on disappointments and on things that surprised him. He looks at the little things that have shaped his life, at the small things that he appreciates and fill up his days. As he becomes more aware of what is happening around him he begins to realise that some small things, silence, turning a blind eye, pretence, build to make something that he can no long ignore.

Bill’s is a silent protest. His actions are instinctive. He knows that his quiet, dignified way of handling the situation will have more of an affect than noise, and ruckus and attention. He is breaking the unofficial code of silence and is hopefully the first of many.

It won’t take you long to read, this book of just over 100 pages. But it will stay with you for a long time after. There is a skill to creating a complete, immersive world with fewer words. Brevity whilst making a reader care, making characters real and emotions real, means every word has to be carefully considered. Such is the case here and it shows.

There are some beautiful sentences that litter the pages. Ones that make you stop and think. Ones that make you re-read them immediately, savour them, ones that strike you in some unfathomable way. Not a word is wasted. Brief though the book may be, it is a full story, a sad story but one with hope at the end.

There may be triggers in the book. It looks at the dark days of Magdalen laundries, of when young, pregnant girls and women were sent to convents to live out their ‘shame’. The fact that these places were still active until the 1990s is staggering to consider, though sadly not a surprise.

There will be many reviews of this book, with many people able to express its merits in a far more elegant, deserving way. This book probably won’t be for everyone but if you do give it a chance I’m fairly confident you will fall under it’s spell too.

Small, but perfectly formed.

Highly recommended.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. BookerTalk says:

    I’m one of the readers who fell under the spell of this book. Many authors could learn from her ability to convey so much in so few words

    Liked by 2 people

    1. janetemson says:

      Yes! The ability to convey so much in so few words is a great skill.


  2. I also loved this book – small and perfectly formed is right!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      So pleased to hear you loved it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I also loved this book. After I finished it, there were times I got choked up talking about it. Totally surprised me, that reaction, but the ending has such a powerful effect.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      I think it’s all the more powerful for it’s understated nature. Bill protests in a mild, calm way so it stands out so much more.

      Liked by 1 person

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