Hadlow Down Book Club Review – December.

We have been reading ‘Small Things Like These’ by Claire Keegan (2021), a novella shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize. It is set in a small Irish town in the run-up to Christmas 1985, and is about the moral dilemma of Bill Furlong, a coal merchant. He is married with five daughters who are doing well and give him much joy and pride. He is the illegitimate son of a 16 year- old housemaid who was protected by her well-to-do Protestant employer who also acted as a patron to Bill. He is aware of his good fortune and tries to emulate her kindness to him by acts of kindness to others.

But Bill has to work hard to maintain his business at a time of poverty and unemployment in Ireland. He is tied to a routine with only Sundays and church festivals to pause and reflect. Even in his home there is constant activity – cooking, homework, etc, the routines of a happy busy family, but one that is only kept afloat by his hard work. When he does have time to think, Bill feels unsettled and questions his way of life; how lucky he has been but that there is something lacking.

Above the town is the brooding presence of the Convent and rumours abound about what goes on there, but only whispered – the church has considerable power and influence over the community. Bill regularly delivers coal there, but what he discovers on this cold Christmas disturbs him so much that he acts a way that will change his life and that of his family for ever.

This has been widely acclaimed as a beautifully-written book and one that resonates in the mind long after reading it – in fact it benefits from re-reading. Like many short stories, every word must count and here the language is spare but telling, with small details that bring the scenes to life. Furlong himself is a Dickensian figure as he distributes small gifts to the needy and there are references to A  Christmas Carol and David Copperfield, but he is a far more complex character than a Dickensian stereotype.

This is a book seemingly simple, but full of nuance and subtlety. We recommend it.

Our next book is I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.

Hadlow Down Book Club