Expectations were high when I picked up Small Things Like These. After all it is a very small book – a novella really – and still it made last year’s Booker shortlist. I expected a small piece of perfection, and in many ways it is.
Set during the weeks before Christmas in a small Irish town, we are with Bill Furlong, a coal merchant as he makes his deliveries and plans his holiday with his family – a wife and five daughters. It’s a cold winter, and Bill draws our attention to the poverty of those around him who can’t afford their coal bill. He sees a boy gathering sticks by the roadside and gives him the change from his pockets, even though he has little enough to spare. You would think this is the 1950s, or earlier, but it is 1985.
Up on the hill, the convent looms over the town, and it is here that the better-off send their laundry, the nuns running a well-respected business. While delivering coal there Bill stumbles upon something he shouldn’t have seen, which as the father of daughters, leaves him troubled and absent-minded with his family. As the days pass Bill must decide if he will turn a blind eye to what goes on at the convent, as surely everyone else does, or step in and do a good deed.
People could be good, Furlong reminded himself, as he drove back to town; it was a matter of learning how to manage and balance the give-and-take in a way that let you get on with others as well as your own. But as soon as the thought came to him, he knew the thought itself was privileged and wondered why he hadn’t given the sweets and other things he’d been gifted at some of the houses to the less well-off he had met in others. Always, Christmas brought out the best and the worst in people.
This is the perfect Christmas story, quietly telling and moving about an ordinary man’s battle to do the right thing without thinking about the consequences. Bill himself is an interesting character, having been raised in the home of a wealthy woman, where his mother was housekeeper. He never knew who his father was and was bullied about it at school. He has had to work hard from the ground up to become the owner of his own coal business. But its viability relies on a fair bit of forelock tugging and respect towards the powerful, particularly the church.
Small Things Like These is an engaging story from the start and manages to convey a lot within its pages. There is nothing to spare, no mucking about with subplots or extra scenes added for colour. It is no longer or shorter than it has to be and doesn’t try to be particularly artistic or modern. It reminded me a little of those old stories by writers like O’Henry that let the story do the talking and pack a big emotional punch.
Some background information about the Irish convent laundries makes for sobering reading at the back of the book, but really Keegan has said it all with her story. A masterclass in storytelling and a five out of five from me.