LITTLE THINGS LIKE THAT by Claire Keegan, Grove, 118 pages, $ 20
Our holiday stories are so sickening with sugar plums that Claire Keegan’s Christmas novel tastes especially fresh. At the opening of Little things like theseYou immediately sense that Keegan infuses something vital into the season’s most cherished stories, until, as gently as falling snow, her little book builds up the unmistakable aura of a classic.
The scene opens in New Ross, on the Irish coast. In just a few pages, the city rises in all its picturesque antiquity with a web of economic and social tensions resonating beneath the surface. It is 1985 and New Ross is in an overwhelming decline. With businesses closed, the lines are long and the houses cold. Those who can leave have already fled abroad in search of a job, a life.
Keegan’s ordinary hero is Bill Furlong, whose past and present she draws with such crisp efficiency that the brush marks in her art are almost invisible. Furlong knows he is lucky. Though born here in poverty and an early orphan, he became the ward of a wealthy widow – a Protestant, nothing less! – who installed it with a little money. Now married and the father of five daughters, he sells charcoal and wood in the city.
Furlong can’t quite express what, if anything, is troubling him. “I’m just a little tired, that’s all,” he said to his wife. “Do not pay attention.” Maybe he’s just scared to see how quickly financial ruin can befall these days. “It would be the easiest thing in the world to lose everything,” he thinks. “Times were rough.”
Or does his vague unease stem from existential dissatisfaction? “Lately he had started to wonder what mattered,” Keegan writes. “He was in his forties but didn’t feel able to go anywhere or make any progress and could only wonder sometimes what the days were for.”
But these are not thoughts that this happy husband and father with a good job will be entertained. “Furlong felt all the more determined to keep going, to keep his head down and stay on the good side of people, and to continue providing for his daughters.”
Besides, it’s Christmas! Keegan practically sprinkles these first pages with cinnamon and nutmeg: townspeople gather in the plaza to light up the large spruce top next to the newly painted crib. Santa Claus makes his appearance. Try the gingerbread, but watch out for the cocoa, it’s hot! You can almost hear Tiny Tim blessing these people, everyone! – and, at the right time, Furlong remembers receiving an old copy of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol.
But Keegan constantly complicates this happy holiday. “It was a month of December of crows”, she wrote just before presenting us the convent of the nuns of the Good Shepherd. The sisters welcome unhappy girls. “Little was known about the training school,” says Keegan, but the laundry service provided by the convent is first-rate, used by all the restaurants in the area, wealthy households and priests. If there are dark rumors about the location, well, what do you expect? “People were saying a lot – and a good half of what was said couldn’t be believed; there has never been a dearth of idle spirits or city gossip.
Irish readers will hear the ominous undertones of this passage before most Americans. Keegan Works Here Near The Horrors Of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize Winning Novel Nickel boys. As she explains in a brief note, Magdalene laundries, which have been run for over 200 years by religious orders, have subjected thousands of young women to forced labor, physical abuse, child abduction. and even to premature death.
Whatever terrors run through the Convent of the Good Shepherd, they remain largely buried under a code of silence imposed by fear and sealed by the presumption of holiness. Still, there is nothing controversial about Little things like these. Keegan’s goal is not to expose the church but to examine a man’s conscience when doing nothing is by far the easiest and safest solution.
How subtly Keegan arranges a meeting early in the morning, just before Christmas. It is then, while Furlong is making his rounds with a delivery of coal that he meets a young woman trapped in the Convent of the Good Shepherd. The past few months have brought him to a place where he can ask with all his heart, “Was it helpful to be alive without helping each other?” It’s a moment loaded with the potential thrill of radical action, but Furlong can hear his wife’s advice still ringing in his ears: “If you want to move on in life, there are some things you have to ignore, so You can continue.”
Out of the elements of this simple existence in an unimportant city, Keegan has carved out a deeply moving and universal story for himself. There is nothing moralizing here, just the weird joy and anxiety of firmly resisting cruelty. Discouraged by the choice open to him, Furlong envied the city’s river. “How easily the water has followed its incorrigible path,” he thinks, as he has to continue on his own path. Or not.
Great gestures, extravagant generosity, surprising moments of forgiveness all have their place in our holiday legends. Corn Little things like these reminds us that the real miracle in any season is courage.
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