In 116 pages, the historical novel by Irish writer Claire Keegan Little things like these (Faber) is the finest book ever shortlisted for the Booker Prize. But the 2022 winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction is a work of weight that outweighs its size as it gazes into the dark underbelly of faith. Set in 1985, in a small Irish community, Keegan’s story examines the Magdalene Laundries scandal in Ireland which came to light in 1993. The Catholic-run, state-supported Magdalene Laundries were operated in Ireland between the 18th and late 20th centuries and were apparently a charitable organisation. to rehabilitate “fallen women”, or prostitutes. In 1993, the discovery of the unmarked graves of 150 of these women on the grounds of the convent of one of Ireland’s laundries launched an investigation and the exposure of a history of violence, abuse, moral censure and oppression. . In 2013, after years of public outrage, the Irish state issued a formal apology.
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Little things like these is anchored by Bill Furlough, a lumber and coal merchant, whose unexpected discovery in the weeks before Christmas forms the narrative and moral heart of the novel.
Despite its brevity, Keegan’s novel went through about 50 drafts before reaching its final version. In an interview with the Booker Library about his appointment to the shortlist, Keegan said: “I’m more interested in getting in than continuing. There is a wonderful letter (Anton) Chekhov wrote to his brother Alexander about the meaning of grace, how grace is when you make the least amount of movement between two points – and this type of athletic prose has always appealed to me, coupled with light- righteousness and restraint. Elegance, for me, is writing just the right amount. And, as James Baldwin said, in his Paris review interview, ‘the most difficult thing in the world is simplicity’.
Interestingly, although Keegan’s novel was the shortest book, by page count, to be shortlisted for the Booker, Alan Garner, another Booker nominee Molasses walker (Fourth Estate) has fewer words.
Of course, the history of the Booker Prizes has other examples of short novels vying for the prestigious annual prize. In 1979, Penelope Fitzgerald’s 132-page novel Offshore won the £50,000 prize.
Other short fiction shortlisted awards include Ian McEwan On Chesil Beach (166 pages), which was shortlisted in 2007, and Julian Barnes’ The meaning of an endwhich, at 163 pages, won the Booker Prize in 2011.