There is something about Irish fiction that presses buttons in me that I can’t quite name. Whatever their names I’ll keep searching, reading until I discover them. Of course, the all-out Irish fiction writer is James Joyce. I’ve yet to tackle Ulysses (1920) – it’s s t i l l on my to-read pile – but if you haven’t read his masterful and very accessible short story collection, Dubliners (1914) you should. And his autobiography, unusually but intriguingly written in the 3rd person, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) is also richly accessible. I have an Irish friend living in Europe who usually visits every year and is due again later in this one who invariably brings me books; I call him my book fairy. An avid reader himself he keeps me stocked in established and new Irish writers for which I am very grateful.
Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, John Boyne, Edna O’Brien, Sebastian Barry, Donal Ryan, Nuala O’Faolain, Anna Burns, Colum McCann, Sally Rooney, Niall Williams, Eimear McBride, and John McGahern (reading him now) and their sideways-up names all look down at me from my bookshelf above.
Claire Keegan is a new one for me. However, this book cover is dotted with praise for another of her works, Foster (2010) and, like this one, is a long short story but given kudos by being lovingly solely published as a handsome hardcover. Thank you Faber & Faber. However, Keegan calls Foster a long short story; she calls Small Things LIke These (2021) a novel: “… something needs to be as long as it needs to be.”
It is also reminiscent of a Joyce story: simple everyday people and their simple everyday lives are explored until something astonishing happens, sometimes only in their minds, and they are changed dramatically. Such is the plot-line of Small Things LIke These.
With the onset of winter – every Irish novel is essentially determined by the weather – Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, devout Catholic, and father of five daughters is so run off his feet he fears the tyres on his delivery truck will wear to the rim causing his wife Eileen to miss out on her essential domestic repairs. He himself was fatherless but he and his young mother were taken in by a wealthy widow and brought up, if not lovingly, then certainly with care and consideration so whenever he goes to deliver coal to the convent and the laundry and staffed by young husbandless mothers he feels something disquieting but resembling kinship. On one such occasion he is confronted by a wayward young mother, dressed shockingly inadequately given the weather who pleads with him to take her to the river so she can drown herself. So serious and desperate is this mother, a mere child herself, that his automatic refusal disturbs him and rakes his mind well into the next day.
I won’t tell you what he finds himself doing on the next chilly evening – no spoilers here – but in keeping with the tragedy of those notorious Irish nun-run institutions and their work-house laundries his decision will change his and his family’s life forever.
The language is remarkably simple but every now and again contains an oyster of verbal surprise and recognition and you are forced to stop for a moment to contemplate the enormity of the insination of a few deft-chosen words. A characteristic of Irish prose.
“When I was young,” she says, “my mother taught me that if I went to the butcher and was choosing a piece of beef to roast, it should be marbled with fat. And I actually see good prose in the same way – marbled with what doesn’t seem to be necessary.” The Guardian. That ‘marble’ is detail, precise and essential, to give the work verisimilitude: the appearance of being real.
Keegan is already being hailed as one of the best short story writers of the 21st Century.
You can read Claire Keegan’s short story ‘So Late in the Day’ courtesy of The New Yorker and/or listen to her read it here.
Here is an interview with Claire Keegan from 2010 about her writing.
You can purchase the eBook and others by Claire Keegan here.