As a bookseller it is always tempting to reach for the next exciting new publication, forcing many great books from previous years to remain at the bottom of the reading pile. One such book was Small Things Like These, by Irish author Claire Keegan. This novella was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2022 but several locals finally convinced me to read it. I was not disappointed.


The book is set in 1985 in a small Irish town. Bill Furlong is a coal merchant and lives a modest but comfortable life with his wife and five daughters. There were rumours in town about the ‘training school for girls’ in the convent up the hill but the community chooses not to look too closely at what goes on behind the high walls topped with broken glass. And then Furlong discovers a girl locked away in the convent’s coal house, distressed, barely able to walk and asking to see her baby.


At the historical background of the story are the Magdalen laundries, an institute for unmarried pregnant girls and women that was funded by the Catholic Church in concert with the Irish state. The girls often suffered terrible abuse and their babies were adopted out or sold to rich Americans. This book is not really about the Magdalen laundries but about what one man does when he comes face to face with the reality of what goes on in the institute.  “…he found himself asking was there any point in being alive without helping one another? Was it possible to carry on along through all the years, the decades, through an entire life, without once being brave enough to go against what was there and yet call yourself a Christian.”


The quiet and unassuming style of this beautiful book reflects the quiet and unassuming hero of the story. Whether you read this novella as a parable about kindness or moral bravery, or as an investigation into the mechanics of complicit silence, it will stay with you for a long time.


Faber, $24.99



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