Claire Keegan sets Small Things Like These in 1985 where Bill Furlong, a loving husband and caring father, with five daughters, delivers fuel in County Wexford, Ireland. One of his customers is a convent on the outskirts of New Ross. One day, he notices that there is a poor girl seemingly living in the coal store there. She has no shoes and is asking for her baby but appears to be uncared for and in a terrible state. It becomes clear that the activities of the convent are an open secret, and it is what became known as a Magdalene Laundry.
There But For The Grace …
The approximately 30,000 unfortunate young women who were sent to these establishments were those who became pregnant out of wedlock and, due to this, were ostracised. Indeed, Bill’s own mother could have suffered this fate had she not been taken in by a wealthy and caring woman in the area back when he came into the world. The recollection of this gives Bill a deep appreciation of the knife-edge that can divide a good life and a miserable one.
In 1985, Bill and his wife are not well-off and struggle to provide for their family as Bill ponders the plight of the girl he saw in the coal cellar at the convent. As the novella progresses, will Bill get on with his life or somehow make room in it to help the girl who his community would regard as ‘of low character’ and ‘common’?
Bill is a delightful and relatable character, very well-drawn, relatable and with compelling compassion. This book is a joy to read, and I found the characters stayed with me long after my first reading.