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A Review of “Small Things Like These” by Claire Keegan: a powerful historical fiction about teen pregnancies

Hope is holding the book "Small Things Like These" by Claire Keegan up in the air. There are green leafy trees in the background.

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This book has been hard to get. It was sold out in most book stores and my library had a hold list that looked like it was never going to end. Small Things Like These was selected for my summer book club, and I was desperate to get my hands on it. I managed to find it squirreled away in a local bookstore and I made sure I got it there and then. Claire Keegan’s book is rather short and I would consider it to be a novella (short novel) which also makes it perfect for a light Christmas/Holiday read. In fact, you could easily make yourself a nice pot of tea and finish this novella in a quiet afternoon.

My reading has been a bit all over the place – something I will talk more on towards the end of the year – and I’ve had trouble staying focused. Christmas is a complicated time for me with a lot of losses, so I know that the time of year is not helping. With all that said, I was really glad that my book club had chosen a short book – and I was really glad it was Keegan’s latest work.

Keegan is an Irish author who grew up in Ireland but she has also lived in the United States, Wales, and is now back in Ireland. Her writing, like all Irish writing seems to have to beauty and softness about it that I can’t quite explain, but truly love to read. I’ve written about my love of Irish authors a lot on this blog and one of my favourites is Niall WilliamsThis is Happiness. You can read my review of Williams‘ book here.

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Small Things Like These is a powerful historical fiction centred on the character of Bill Furlong. He works as a coal and timber delivery man for his small town and is the father of five children and husband to his wife, Eileen. On the surface of it all, Bill should be content with his life and lot. Yet, as Keegan so eloquently unfolds the story, we learn that things are not quite what they seem for Bill.

Keegan’s historical fiction tackles the issue Magdalen laundries in Ireland, which were essentially workhouses for women (especially young and teen woman) who had fallen pregnant out of wedlock. They were run by the Catholic church and families would drop off their female family members there so they could hide their pregnancies from society. Once the child was born, the child was often forcefully removed from the mother and adopted out. There have been cases as recent as today that suggest many of the children born in these laundries died en mass. While the Magdalen laundries were particularly severe in Ireland similar establishments existed all over the world – for example, Melbourne, Australia had three such establishments.

When Bill drops firewood and coals off at the local church he finds a small young teenage girl has been locked in the coal shed for most of the night. She is covered in dirt, cold, and terrified. He brings her inside and the nuns remove the girl and hush everything over. All that Bill can get out of the girl is that her name is Sarah – the same as his mother.

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Bill’s mother, Sarah was a teen herself when she first fell pregnant with Bill. The Wilson family took her in and let her work their for a small amount of pay along with room and board. Everyone tells Bill that he should be grateful for the kindness from the Wilson family – especially when the alternative could have been a Magdalen laundry for his mother. Yet, I sensed the whole way through the book that Bill was tired of having to be grateful. His frustration and anger felt palpable throughout the novel – in that repressed Irish Catholic way.

While Bill made a life for himself and leads a respectable life with his wife and children, Bill’s teen mother is something he can never quite escape from. In many ways it seems to follow Bill throughout his life and everyone, including his wife, uses his mother’s teen pregnancy as a riposte for any time Bill says something out of line with keeping the peace.

My own mother had her first child at 16 and I felt like I could relate a lot to Bill’s character. This undercurrent of judgement even when things seem fine seems to come out again and again for him.

When he see’s Sarah in the coal shed, I think it is a turning point for him. He seems to throw off the expectations of the church and of society, and he decides to take Sarah home. The novella ends there and we never learn what happens next for Bill, Sarah, or Eileen. Although, I would like to think that they found some peace.

The judgement that Bill receives throughout the novella is painful, and somehow Keegan manages to balance the sadness and delicacy of these family stories in a beautiful way. Bill’s resentment came off the page for me and felt alive. While the subject matter is tense and painful, it is somehow not heavy.

This is definitely not the Christmas story we are used to reading, but it is one that I will find myself returning to again. “Small Things Like These” is a powerful historical fiction and I am so glad I read it. Please tell me if you read “Small Things Like These” and if you liked it. As always, share the reading love.