Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan – between happiness and ruin | fiction
In all the stories of Claire Keegan, there is a family. The protagonist changes – the father, mother, son or daughter. But this figure never stands very far ahead. Instead, the narrative draws its emotional resonance from the dynamics between the characters. Within these families reign cruelty and violence, as well as deep sources of affection. There is still a lot of unspoken. “You have nothing to say to your mother. If you started out, you’d say the wrong things and you wouldn’t want it to end that way, ”we learn from the protagonist of The Parting Gift, from Keegan’s second collection, Walk the Blue Fields. (2007). In The Ginger Rogers Sermon, his first Antarctica (1999), the protagonist describes the insignificant secrets they all hide: “It’s like that with us, everyone knows things but pretends not to know.
In his stories there is the great sky, the flowing river and the sea – we are often in County Wexford or County Wicklow in the south-east of Ireland, where Keegan grew up on a farm, the youngest of six children. And this landscape tells us things that the characters don’t know or don’t know about the stories they inhabit. In her first collection, Antarctica, “Clouds have crashed into the sky”, anticipating the terrible encounter between a married protagonist and the stranger who will leave her tied to a bed. In Walk the Blue Fields, “A pale cloud split in the April sky,” as the parish priest prepares to celebrate the wedding of the only woman he has ever loved.
Small Things Like These, Keegan’s latest short novel, shares its properties with the best of its stories. Like a plunge pool, the narrative involves significant depth below its narrow and delimited surface. The protagonist here is the father, Bill Furlong, a coal merchant with a wife and five daughters. It’s Christmas 1985, in the town of New Ross, County Wexford. What sets this book apart from Keegan’s earlier work is where the violence against the family lies.
Stories in Antarctica switch irrevocably towards brutality. They end with suicides, rapes, family breakdowns. The tongue is scathing and immediate. In Walk the Blue Fields, which won the Edge Hill Award for short stories, Keegan pushes violence to the fringes. The horrible things that disturb the lives of its characters are only hints, having transpired sometime before the present, or in the previous generation. This makes the stories more substantial and elementary than those of Antarctica, with any action taken by a character not appearing fortuitous but as triggered many years ago.
Like those of Walk the Blue Fields, Foster’s tragedy, first published in the New Yorker in 2010 and developed into a short novel later that year, has already occurred, its form submerged just under the events of the narrative. It’s a sublime, moving story, one from which you come out as if you had been gone for a very long time: uncertain, at the beginning, how to continue your own life. In many ways, it functions as a midpoint between Walk the Blue Fields and Small Things Like These, indicative of Keegan’s change of mood towards a more tender and hopeful kind of fiction. Unlike his previous parents, Bill Furlong is pure-hearted, sometimes displaying an almost Dickensian sentimentality. Keegan seems to direct the reader to this association, describing how Furlong read A Christmas Carol as a child; he asked David Copperfield for Christmas this year. Sympathetic and gentle, he watches his daughters grow up with “a deep and intimate joy that these children are his”. Although they have little, they have enough and feel infinitely lucky. So all the adversity in the novel occurs in a certain place.
At the exit of the city is a convent. Adjoining it, a training school and a laundromat where young women live and work. There are all kinds of rumors about the people present – “weak-tempered girls” or “ordinary and single girls”, which were hidden after childbirth. The terrible conditions in which they are forced to live are finally confirmed when Furlong discovers a girl locked in the convent coalmine, distressed, barely able to walk and asking to see her baby.
The tension comes from whether or not Furlong will act on his findings. In her note to the text, Keegan explains that the Magdalene Laundries, where around 30,000 Irish women were incarcerated between the 18th and 20th centuries, were “run and funded by the Catholic Church in concert with the Irish state.” For Furlong and his family, “it would be the easiest thing in the world to lose everything.” His sensitivity to the narrow line between happiness and ruin is explained in the text. Furlong’s mother gave birth to him out of wedlock when she was 16. She could easily have finished in the laundry; if this was one of Keegan’s first stories, maybe she would have done it. But, in this case, Furlong and his mother were taken in by a wealthy Protestant woman living just beyond New Ross.
Despite this relative lack of turbulence in Furlong’s past, Keegan offers him a complex and nuanced inner life. This is what prevents him, in the long term, from becoming a Dickensian figurehead. Although his life is good, Furlong can’t help but imagine alternate existences for himself. When he visited a neighbor’s house, “he sat for a moment soaking up the peace of this ordinary room, letting part of his mind wander and imagine what it might be like to live there, in this room. house, with it. like his wife ”. Why, then, doesn’t Small Things Like These seem as devastating, as enduring as Keegan’s previous work? Perhaps, for the first time in his writing, the lightness here has become too light – is too far removed from the darkness that lurks on the other side of town.