Book Review for “Small Things Like These” by Claire Keegan.
Summary: “It is 1985 in a small Irish town. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, Bill Furlong, a coal merchant and family man faces into his busiest season. Early one morning, while delivering an order to the local convent, Bill makes a discovery which forces him to confront both his past and the complicit silences of a town controlled by the church.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Contemporary, Ireland; Other Categories: Novella.
This book was just included in the NPR’s list of the best books of 2021, and I have to agree that it really is something very special. I read a review of this book by another blogger and she was so effusive about it, I went to look it up. That I found it on NetGalley and that I was approved for the ARC was a real surprise for me (NetGalley doesn’t like me very much, apparently). So, when the approval came through, I stopped what I was reading on my Kindle immediately and got to it! Also, since it is a novella, it only took me a couple of sessions to read it, and I was able to put up this review as my last entry for #NovellasinNovember! So here we go…
I have to say that there is something about this book that reminded me a bit of Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome” which I read and reviewed for #NovellasinNovember, as well as the upcoming #6Degrees of Separation. Plus, with that book so fresh in my mind, it was easy for me to notice the similarities. While Furlong isn’t quite as troubled as Frome, both of them have a type of heaviness in their lives, and essentially both books are very strongly character driven stories about the lives of hard-working men living in small, close-knit communities. Both of these works are highly atmospheric with their prose, even though neither author describes the settings of their stories in detail, since they concentrate on more on the thoughts and emotions of their protagonists. I also noticed that in both books, the other characters referred to the protagonists by their first names (Ethan and Bill or William), while the authors both used their surnames (Frome and Furlong) in their descriptions. I believe that this mechanic is a way for the authors to say that the narrator is observing things that everyone else can’t see.
However, Wharton wrote us a forbidden love story, while Keegan’s focus on Furlong is more of a reflection on his life and how he now moves through this sea-side Irish town. While that might sound like the depths of emotions would be more pronounced in Wharton’s book, I have to admit that there were places when I felt Wharton gave Frome too much angst regarding Mattie, and too much disgust with his wife. Keegan, on the other hand, builds up Furlong in a very different way. Furlong’s life could have been very different, if it hadn’t been for the generosity of his mother’s wealthy employer. This “there but by the grace of God” type of outlook colors Furlong’s whole life. So, even though he and his family are mostly just getting by, when he is in contact with those who are less fortunate, his compassion comes through all the more. Despite this, Furlong isn’t some philanthropist, he just tries to do right by people in the little ways that good people are able. That’s why when he sees a situation where his taking action and might make life for himself and his family more difficult, he is faced with a dilemma.
Rather than give too much away, let’s just say that this inner conflict that Furlong has isn’t small at all, and what he does is quite monumental, if you ask me. That makes the title of this book a bit ironic. I also have to say that the other way that this book differs with Wharton’s is with the ending. I wasn’t totally thrilled with how neatly Wharton wrapped up the very messy situation that Frome gets himself into. Keegan, on the other hand, decided to leave the ending open, so that the reader will never really know the full impact of what Furlong does. While I do prefer to have some questions left unanswered, so that the effect of the climax isn’t disturbed with unnecessary details, I’m not sure about how Keegan left this story. Yes, Keegan did leave me with an “Oh” moment with the last line, but not a “wow” one. Still, I was duly impressed with this story, and I’d like to recommend it very warmly. However (and this is a tiny however), I can’t give it a full five stars, as for me it lacked just a tiny something. So, I’m going with 4.75 stars, rounded up to five, which is still high praise indeed!
Grove Press will release “Small Things Like These” by Claire Keegan on November 30, 2021, but it was already released in the UK on October 19 by Faber & Faber. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository UK and The Book Depository US (free worldwide delivery), Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery UK and Wordery US, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, Booksamillion.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley.