SMALL THINGS LIKE THESE
By Claire Keegan
A tiny thing itself — a slice-of-life novella cheekily packaged as a full-scale novel — Claire Keegan’s “Small Things Like These” is set in a small village in Ireland, just before Christmas in 1985. Here the friendly mundanities of a workingman’s daily routine meet the grim shadow cast by the country’s Magdalene laundries.
At those secretive institutions, which lasted from the 1700s through the 1990s and were typically run by Catholic nuns with the support of the Irish government, so-called “fallen” girls and women were imprisoned, worked and abused, their children often taken from them and neglected, or even killed. In 2014, a mass grave containing the remains of some 800 babies and children was uncovered in a septic tank in the County Galway town of Tuam. Only in the past decade have the Catholic Church and Irish society begun to confront the horrors of the laundries that incarcerated approximately 30,000 women.
For the fictional villagers in “Small Things Like These,” as for its readers, the specter of these laundries is fleeting at first — a shock of cold you pass through quickly, with a reflexive shiver, before emerging into the next patch of sun. The protagonist, a coal and timber merchant named Bill Furlong, is himself the son of an unmarried Catholic mother who “had fallen pregnant” at 16 and avoided the torment of a Magdalene home through the charity of her Protestant employer. Now an adult with daughters of his own, Furlong is going about his coal-delivery rounds one day when he finds one of the nuns’ abject charges locked inside a freezing shed. He takes the girl into the convent and shares a fraught cup of tea with the tyrannical Mother Superior. It’s clear that eventually he’ll have to decide whether to rescue the girl or leave her to her fate, turning a blind eye as the rest of his community would doubtless prefer
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