Small Things like These 
by Claire Keegan.
Faber, 73 pp., £10, October 2021, 978 0 571 36868 6
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This year​ Claire Keegan, long esteemed, became fêted. Small Things like These has just won the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction and been longlisted for the Booker. Foster, published in 2010, has been filmed as The Quiet Girl. I shall not see it, at least not for a while; the words on the page are lodged in my head. Keegan’s fiction makes most novels look too fancy; her short stories make most prose seem too plain. Her inner and outer landscapes, the palpable and the imagined, are all of a piece. You think you are just looking – it turns out you are travelling.

She has published four books in 23 years, none more than 210 pages long. The short stories in her two collections, Antarctica and Walk the Blue Fields, include a coming out in America and a sex thriller set in an English cathedral city, but most of them take place in the Irish countryside. Foster, which first appeared in the New Yorker before being published as a book, is a compact exploration of her recurring subjects: loss of a parent, dependence on land, secrecy.

Keegan has said that the main character of her new novel is ‘a Christian who cannot practise his Christianity in Ireland’. The description jolts. The suggestion of doctrine, of ideology, even of a determined attitude, is alien to the experience of reading Small Things like These. Hurrah for the judges of the Orwell Prize for celebrating it as a political act. Like all Keegan’s books, it slips down easily, weaving a character’s idiom – ‘he could not say which he rathered’ – in and out of the narrative. It doesn’t argue, it pulses: with observation, memory, anticipation, anxiety, hope. It is, nonetheless, an attack: on institutions, social organisation, systemic injustice and the arrangements of the Catholic Church. At the centre – though they begin at the periphery – are the Magdalene Laundries.

It is 1985, the year it became possible for people in Ireland to buy condoms and spermicides without a prescription. Bill Furlong, heading for forty, delivers coal and timber in the town where he grew up. An amiable husband and father, he is also a man whose mother was unmarried; he doesn’t know his (earthly) father. His past and present, his private life and the world outside his home are in continual, tacit debate. As in all Keegan’s fiction, this is not a shifting of tectonic plates but a swirl of different currents, which merge to give a constantly changing complexion.

Furlong has steady work, but all around him people are in difficulty. Shipyards are closing, factories are announcing redundancies; shops and businesses are failing; the young are leaving the country. Customers are relieved to hand Furlong their Christmas cards rather than having to pay for stamps. One morning he sees, behind the priest’s house, ‘a young schoolboy drinking the milk out of the cat’s bowl’. The florist is boarding up her windows and asks for help as she hammers in the nails: a mercantile crucifixion.

Keegan’s plotting isn’t punitive, but she makes it clear that comfort comes at a cost. Disowned by her family when she fell pregnant, Furlong’s mother was saved from destitution and ignominy by the Protestant widow for whom she worked. Mother and baby were taken into her substantial house. Yet, though rescued, the boy was not altogether nourished: he was spat at on his way back from school. The life of sterling security he has built is – Keegan is too subtle to spell this out – a restoration. Furlong’s wife is a fort of caution, eager to protect the family’s sweetness and strength. His teenage daughters are thriving at school and are observant Catholics. Among the things described as ‘small’ in the novel are their genuflections in the chapel, habitual but not merely automatic, and keenly seen by their father as the way in which they move through the world. He is loyal to his family: the flickers of desire he has for women he meets on his rounds suggest not that he is likely to be unfaithful to his wife but that he is alive to romantic intimacy. He is warmed by closeness to his children, but the difference he has helped to make between their lives and his own youth also brings hurt.

Keegan does something rare in creating archives of unhappiness, showing the way one sorrow may reverberate with another, how pressure can activate the pain of an old bruise. As a boy, short on Christmas gifts, Furlong had longed for a particular jigsaw puzzle, which had a picture of a farm. Instead he was given a nailbrush, a hot-water bottle and a copy of A Christmas Carol. When one of his daughters, drawing up her list of presents, asks whether ‘Santy’ came to him as a child, he lies – thinking to boast – that yes, one year Santy brought him a jigsaw. ‘A jigsaw?’ she replies. ‘Was that all?’ The distance is enormous.

When he stops on his rounds at the ‘powerful-looking’ convent on the hill, Furlong sees another still greater gap in circumstances and expectations. Making a delivery, he finds a young girl locked in a coal shed. Her imprisonment is explained as being part of a game, which adds taunt to terror. The systematic cruelty is made plain, in a number of small things – routine stigmata – that he notices in the young women cleaning the chapel: the stye on one girl’s eye; the hair of another, roughly cut, ‘as though someone blind had taken to it with shears’; the way the girls look at him, ‘like they’d been scalded’. The silence of the nuns is icy. Trying to explain what he has seen, Furlong is advised by a neighbour not to speak out. His wife tells him to leave well alone, else he may ruin his family’s comfort and happiness; when he opens a Christmas card from one of the nuns, a banknote drops out. The warnings are restrained, as if speaking plainly would be impolite. Still, they are forceful. Furlong does not acquiesce; he changes his ending.

What he does is clear but the consequences are left unresolved. The novel’s last sentence is a study in Keegan’s magnetic images and serpentine thinking. Furlong approaches his home, ‘climbing’ up the street, to a kind of calvary. He has made a decision that may cause him to lose his old life, and his future is seen in the balance. In one hand he holds the hand of the young girl from the coal shed, whose ‘bare, black feet’ cause people in the town – people he has known all his life – to recoil or greet him curtly, seeing in them a forbidden history. In his other hand he carries a box of shoes, a Christmas present for his wife. The contrast might have been too neatly balanced if given a sentence of its own, but painful simplicity gives way to complication: ‘In his foolish heart he not only hoped but legitimately believed that they would manage.’ Who can say who is granting legitimacy?

The cruelties of the Magdalene Laundries are of a particular order: harsh, institutionalised, wilful. They are, however, part of a larger landscape of damage inflicted on women in Keegan’s work. One woman spends years quelling her father’s temper so that a sister may flourish abroad; another endures jeers from her husband. One – more than one – has a father who ‘has never given her so much as a tender word’. There are those who belong to a new category of fatality: killed in domestic action. In one short story, a child detains his mother in his grandmother’s house. She is killed when a lorry crashes into the room where she is resting: ‘If you’d gone home when you were told … your mother would be alive today.’ Furlong’s mother dies while wheeling a barrowful of crab apples to make jelly. The home front is dangerous.

Small Things like These marks a swivel in attention. It is not – or not centrally – about the women being damaged, but about a man recognising the damage. And less about him in a purely biographical sense than about the process of his recognition, which is an accumulation of small things. He experiences the events that will change him with the fractured intensity that arrives in crisis. It reminded me of the way, when I was knocked down by a car forty years ago, sensation was fragmented. The squishing sound of my thigh being hammered, the surprise of being flung into the air, the unyielding slam of metal against flesh, the recognition that this was happening because I was daydreaming hovered clearly and separately, and only slowly coalesced into pain.

As Furlong goes about his coal deliveries, he meets alternative versions of his life: driving to the convent, ‘the reflection of his headlights crossed the windowpanes and it felt as though he was meeting himself there.’ In the shining pots of the kitchen he catches ‘a version of himself, passing’. He becomes strange to himself. There is nothing fluttery about Keegan’s prose but it is full of surfaces and borders that can seem to melt or spill over.

‘Setting’ is a slippery word to apply to books that register place so absolutely and yet so liquidly. Keegan’s landscapes are conjured from transitory effects: shadow and wind, pressure and ripple, twisting, unexpected light, the slick and the glitter of frost. And with something rarely delivered in fiction: a feeling for space, for air experienced less as a substance than as a void. Keegan, who never itemises, makes most descriptions look like lists. She knows that police identikits get it wrong: that we recognise people by aspects we have not classified. She captures character in the blur and scythe and rhythm of movement. ‘He led her across the floorboards same as a cat’s tongue moves along a saucer of cream.’ She suggests estrangement by a small and silent absence: when a gravy jug is passed around a family table, the fingers of husband and wife leave it ‘before the other’s clasp’. Her sense of smell is particular: the whiff of pears from a future husband is a sign to a woman of his complete inner strangeness; ‘every story has its own, particular scent,’ thinks a woman celebrated among her farming neighbours for spinning tales of an evening.

In a transfixing appearance on American TV twelve years ago, Keegan invoked caution and reluctance when speaking about her writing and said she was suspicious of any idea that presented itself to her with excitement. Hers was unlike any other interview with an author I’ve seen. Motionless, concentrated and pragmatic, she extended to her creations the sort of courteous interest one might take in a young cousin. Nothing about self-expression. Yet an absolute correspondence between her presence and her fiction.

There is no pounce or scurry in these paragraphs but neither is there any hanging around. The attention is steady, whatever the disruption. Eeriness is delivered so easily that a chill may glide past almost unnoticed. In one short story, petals are ‘as smooth as eyelids’ – most writers would be quite pleased with themselves for making the observation the other way round. In another, a priest looks at his former lover’s face and remembers feeling that the wind might blow away her freckles. In Keegan country there are unusual domestic arrangements: she gave one of her rare smiles in the telly interview when she mentioned – as if she saw him strolling in front of her – a man who lives with a goat called Josephine. There are characters dusted by ancient superstitions: ‘Night of the Quicken Trees’ has a glossary explaining why someone might place a pair of tongs across a baby’s pram. There are nimble comic twists: ‘You’ve a fine pair of feet … God bless them,’ runs one chat-up line. But there is nothing fanciful about most of Keegan’s cast. Her plots often pivot on the bitter subject of land, which is work, inheritance, enchainment, fortune, bad luck, the cord with which men capture women and confine them. Keegan was brought up on a farm in Co. Wicklow and the men about whom she writes customarily work fields rather than regard them. They assess the countryside with a farmer’s eye, looking not for beauty but for rain.

There is a shift in attitude in the new novel towards two of Keegan’s most urgent subjects. A father takes centre stage as a good man and secrecy is shown up as a terrible thing – as a form of pernicious lying. This puts the novel in an interesting relation to Foster, where secrets are regarded more ambivalently – sometimes things should not be said – while one father is seen utterly to fail. Her examination of being an abandoned daughter is at its most intense here: Keegan joins E. Nesbit and Sylvia Plath in clinching on the cry ‘Daddy!’

A small girl, daughter of a struggling farmer, is sent to a better-off couple to be looked after while her mother has – yet another – baby; her father deposits her without saying when he will come back. Her new life with her foster parents reveals the unhappiness of her ordinary life to her, as in a slowly developing negative. She is not scolded when she wets the bed; she has the dirt from under her nails taken out with tweezers. She is taught to say ‘yes’ instead of ‘yeah’ – regarded as affectation by her own family. She is embraced, she is told not to fear. When her foster father takes her by the hand, she realises her own father has ‘never once’ done this; the recognition is so painful that for a moment she wants the new sensation of affection to stop. Walking on, she thinks: ‘Maybe the way back will somehow make sense of the coming.’

This notion of going back to go forward, this discovery of deprivation by fulfilment, is characteristic of Keegan’s intricacy. She has talked of being spurred into writing by being antagonised by an idea. In ‘The Long and Painful Death’, an author looks back on the time she spent with a man who ‘often said the opposite of what he felt, as though the saying of it would make it true, or hide the fact that it was not’. In Foster, the child is told that her foster mother trusts others ‘so she’ll learn who not to trust.’

Her characters find themselves out by contradiction. They observe steadily, but often move as if stirred by magical divination. Or by dreams: even the old saying that dreams go ‘by contraries’ is given a contrary twist by Keegan. For one disillusioned character, dreaming is noisier than waking conversation, ‘the closest thing to having someone to talk to’. Who else makes this degree of intricacy look so completely natural? Claire Keegan is mighty.

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