Being up to your ears in work is nothing to complain about, unless it cuts into the reading and writing time too much, as has happened to me this month. This seems especially cruel, as November features so many of my favourite book themes. Take a look at previously reviewed books for Nonfiction November or German Literature Month via these links, as unfortunately it is not looking like there will be time to add many new ones to them! When time is fleeting and attention needs to be elsewhere, the dedicated reader needs short reads, via short story collections or novellas. In lockdown last year, I made this list of 10 short books that were perfect to read ‘over a weekend, or to be savoured in the odd spare moment here or there.’ This Small Things Like These review would fit comfortably on this list and Claire Keegan’s latest book would be a great choice for Novellas in November 2021.
Small Things Like These begins in autumn (another reason why now is a good time to read it!) as in New Ross, a small town in Ireland, the colder weather brings busy days to the coal merchant, Bill Furlong. Married with five daughters, Bill should be too run off his feet with Christmas coming to take much notice of what is going on around him, but he is at the age where it is easy to drift into thoughts and memories. He has worked his way up from nothing, as the son of an unmarried mother who worked at ‘the big house’ and was given some protection by her employer, Mrs Wilson, and the farmhand, Ned. Time has passed and now Bill’s two eldest daughters are secondary school age and worries are everywhere.
…there he’d lie with his mind going round in circles, agitating, before finally he’d have to go down and put the kettle on, for tea. He’d stand at the window then with the cup in his hand, looking down at the streets and what he could see of the river, at the little bits and pieces of goings on… He imagined his girls getting big and going out into that world of men. Already he’d seen men’s eyes following his girls. But some part of his mind was often tense; he could not say why.
As a local businessman, Bill can see hardship around him, but he is determined to keep his head down and keep his family safe and provided for, and there is an air of ‘what else can you do’ about him. That lasts until the day when a delivery at the local convent opens his eyes to the young women at the training school and laundry run by the nuns and recall the whispers that he heard but paid no mind to before. His wife Eileen tells him it is nothing to do with them, the pub landlady Mrs Kehoe warns him that the nuns have a finger in every pie, holding sway over which girls get to attend the better school in town. But with Bill’s past, what would have happened to him without Mrs Wilson watching out for him is never far from his thoughts.
Small Things Like These is a beautifully written, perfectly contained world. Claire Keegan said in an interview that ‘something needs to be as long as it needs to be,’ and she is right, having packed more punch than many longer books into 128 pages. She captures the feeling of seasons passing and days turning, moving from childhood into adulthood and then middle-age, on the way getting so caught up in what has to be done that it is easy to forget what ought to be done. Reading the book begs the question of what else around us are we encouraged to turn a blind eye to this season and what are we going to do about it?
People could be good, Furlong reminded himself, as he drove back into town; it was a matter of learning how to manage and balance the give-and-take in a way that let you get on with others as well as your own. But as soon as the thought came to him, he knew the thought itself was privileged and wondered why he hadn’t given the sweets and other things he’d been gifted at some of the houses to the less well-off he had met in others. Always, Christmas brought out the best and worst in people.
This Small Things Like These review is part of Novellas in November – are there any other similarly perfect short books and novellas on your to be read list this month? Let me know in the comments…