My final read of 2022 was Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, a short book that I read on the plane from Taipei to Tokyo on New Year’s Eve. An ARC of this book has been in my house for a long time – a year? – and I decided to bring it on the trip because the reviews were so positive (and because Keegan has another acclaimed book now making the rounds called Foster). It takes place in Ireland in 1985, when a coal/wood seller is gearing up for Christmas in his small, depressed Irish town. Bill Furlong, father to five girls, is out making deliveries when he discovers something very disturbing at the local convent and has to decide how to respond. Small Things Like These is about complicity, corruption, abuse and the courage needed to take a stand.
Why I picked it up: I’ve wanted to get to this one for a long time.
When Bill makes his delivery to the convent, he unwittingly unearths some very troubling things. Girls are being used to run the very profitable laundry business at the convent and are living under inhumane conditions. When one traumatized girl makes reference to her baby being taken away, Bill has to decide whether to take a stand and help, or remain quiet about the convent’s operation like so many others in the town have done, for fear of going against the powerful Catholic Church. His discovery unearths many complex feelings in Bill, himself the son of an unwed mother who survived only due to the generosity and kindness of her employer. Should he threaten his family’s comfortable existence by shedding light into the abuse happening just a few miles away?
Small Things Like These is about the Irish Magdalen Laundries from the 70s and 80s, run by the Catholic Church to house “fallen women”, a group loosely comprised of prostitutes, unwed mothers and anyone else the Church (and society) broadly deemed “immoral”. The women were treated like prisoners, their babies taken away and adopted, with many deaths that went undisclosed and undocumented. This horrendous practice went on for decades, with tens of thousands of lives lost. Small Things Like These is one tiny narrative within this larger, awful story, but Keegan manages to bring the issue sharply and powerfully to light in just over 100 pages.
I highly recommend this short, memorable book. Not a word here is unnecessary, not a detail inconsequential. I read each word carefully, not wanting to miss a thing, and was sorry when it ended.
Small Things Like These was the 62nd and final book of 2022!!