Week 4 in Novellas in November is Contemporary novellas (post 1980). It was only this year that I ‘discovered’ Claire Keegan’s work when her novella, Small Things Like These was shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize. I liked the description, so I was eager to read it and I thoroughly enjoyed it. So wanting to read more of her books I read Foster, another novella, which is the buddy read during the Novellas in November event.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (73 pages) 5*
It is 1985, in an Irish town. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, faces into his busiest season. As he does the rounds, he feels the past rising up to meet him – and encounters the complicit silences of a people controlled by the Church.
It won the 2022 Orwell Prize for Political Fiction, an award for outstanding novels and collections of short stories, first published in the UK or Ireland, that illuminate major social and political themes, present or past, through the art of narrative. It also won the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year 2022.
Claire Keegan’s style of writing is a refreshing change from so many of the long and complicated books I so often read. It is precise, focused, and beautifully written bringing her characters to life – these are real, ordinary people, living ordinary lives in 1980s Ireland. And the detail is there too in all the particulars of everyday life – it packs a lot into its pages. Bill Furlong is happily married with five young daughters, but he still remembers his own childhood. He never knew who his father was, brought up by his mother and the widow for whom she worked. Life was hard then and his own childhood Christmases were not like his daughters’, and it is this, I think, that makes him such a kind and compassionate man. As he does his rounds delivering coal and wood, he goes to the local convent and is confronted with the cruelty meted out to the young girls living there.
Set in the weeks leading up to Christmas it contrasts the season of hope and joy at the birth of a child with the treatment of unmarried mothers received in the homes known as the Magdalen laundries – and at the end of the story Claire Keegan explains the history of those institutions that were run by the Roman Catholic Church and the Irish State until they were closed down in 1996. Small Things Like These demonstrates the courage and compassion needed to stand up to the power of the church and state.
Foster by Claire Keegan (101 pages) 5*
A small girl is sent to live with foster parents on a farm in rural Ireland, without knowing when she will return home. In the strangers’ house, she finds a warmth and affection she has not known before and slowly begins to blossom in their care. And then a secret is revealed and suddenly, she realizes how fragile her idyll is.
I was amazed at the emotional depth Claire Keegan has instilled into such a few pages. She writes such clear sentences filled with poetic beauty. She shows how a young girl from an overcrowded and poverty stricken family blossomed whilst living with relatives of her mother, the Kinsellas, as her mother is about to give birth to yet another baby.
Yet it is not that straight forward. There is an undercurrent that hints of something that is not right, something that has happened that is never put into words. There is a sadness that pervades the story, along with kindness, caring and compassion. The girl knows she’ll return to her family, but she doesn’t know when, so the story is always told as it is happening. It’s in the present tense, which I never realised until I came to the ending. This is one of the rare instances for me that the use of the present tense seemed just right. The ending too could only happen the way it does. I absolutely loved Foster.