The recently Booker Prize-longlisted novel by acclaimed writer Claire Keegan, Small Things Like These, follows a busy coal merchant in an Irish village in the 1980s just before Christmas, who unwittingly discovers a young woman “locked in a convent coal shed, leaking milk and mourning the loss of her baby.” Well-kept secrets of the town soon start tumbling out as we learn about the infamous Magdalene Laundries – which operated from the 18th to late 20th centuries in Ireland and were meant to house (read: imprison) “promiscuous” women of the society who were then forced to carry out grueling unpaid labour. These laundries were controlled by the church concertedly with the Irish state.
The economy and precision of this slim novel – which is truly monumental in scope – is startling. This is the first piece of this column titled TL;DR, and in an ironic twist I am beginning the series with a book that’s only 128 pages long. But it deserves to be read and discussed because of how unambiguously it gives us a taste of both Irish history and life from a dark time, with snippets about local life and social commentary that’s steadily delivered with a light touch.
It catches the reader by complete surprise when such an unsuspecting story about an inconsequential place experiencing everyday things takes a turn towards something far more sinister and puts readers at a crossroads, asking difficult questions of both its hardworking protagonist’s conscience and them. But even as it tackles heavy themes, Small Things Like These never ceases to be deeply moving. Through a deceptively unremarkable man’s story about a community leading a tough but simple life, it reminds us of the profound courage that can be unearthed from the core of the human heart. Evidently, I find this novel breathtaking, and I believe its inherent grace will keep you enthralled too if you decide to give it a chance.