A review by shelleyanderson4127
Small Things Like These, by Claire Keegan

emotional hopeful inspiring reflective medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Character
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? No
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? No


It seems that it is easier to depict cruelty than kindness on the page. Think of all the passages you've read about people hurting each other, unintentionally or deliberately. Contrast and compare with the the times you've read about kindness. The only writer I know who consistently depicts moral questions and characters being kind to one another is Alexander McCall Smith, and, with all respect to Mma Ramotswe and the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Smith is not a writer for the ages.

Claire Keegan is that kind of writer. The pages of her slender novel Small Things Like These are full of the ordinary kindnesses and courtesies people show one another, whether they are married couples, neighbors, shopkeepers or passersby. A horrible historical cruelty is also shown, obliquely, and is the trigger for this examination of one ordinary person's conscience, and the steps that lead him to an act of courage and kindness.

The person is Bill Furlong, a hard working coal and timber merchant. The setting is a small Irish town in 1985, just before Christmas. Furlong was the illegitimate son of a maid. He has always wondered who his father was. Fortunately, his mother's employer decides to keep her on when the pregnancy is exposed. Furlong now has five daughters of his own. Approaching middle age, he increasingly asks himself what life, his life in particular, means.

While delivering coal to a convent he discovers a starving girl locked in a coal shed. With wonderful honesty and an eye for ordinary life, Keegan intimately traces the development of Furlong's sense of responsibility to others, to his family, and to himself. 

The girl is one of the estimated 30,000 Irish women and girls imprisoned in Roman Catholic religious houses and forced to work in so-called Magdalen laundries. Often unmarried and pregnant, their babies were taken from them and adopted overseas. Many of the women and babies died of neglect. In the afterword, Keegan writes that a 2021 Commission Report found that 9,000 children died in just 18 of the institutions being investigated. 

This is a gem of a novel, beautifully written and keenly felt. The questions Furlong struggles with are the same for all of us, questions that will increasingly demand answer in our difficult and uncertain time. We can hope that, like Furlong, the answers can be found in love for one another.

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