On beauty and truth: little things like these

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A while ago at Claire Keegan’s Little things like these (2022), where a father fills hot water bottles for his daughters. It’s Christmas in County Wexford and it’s snowing. Keegan recounts how Bill Furlong, the father, “expels the air out of everyone in a rubbery little wheeze, before firmly tightening the caps”. He had just prepared their supper, “slices of soda bread… which the girls would butter and spread with pot or lemon curd”. He is about to read their letters at the North Pole.

On the surface, Little things like these is a thing of beauty. Keegan tells the story of Furlong with an enchanting cadence, as he brings coal to homes in his small town. The novel flows between tender family scenes, memories of Furlong’s own childhood, and glimpses of the wintry Irish countryside. When Furlong’s daughter sees the “big fat” Santa Claus at a street festival and starts crying, he assures her, “It’s all right…He’s just a man like me, only in costume.” Thinking about Christmas as a young boy, Furlong remembers asking for a “five hundred piece farmhouse puzzle”, only to receive a nail brush and a bar of soap. Amid these moments, Keegan writes of the “long November winds…that stripped the trees” and “the frost-dusted yews and evergreens.” The book is a fairy tale and Keegan’s prose captivates the reader.

Once the reader is thrilled, Keegan then reveals the truth; it’s here that Little things like these shines. Beneath the magical facade of New Ross, Furlong uncovers the hidden abuses plaguing his hometown. The novel, set in 1985, falls into the genre of historical fiction and skilfully highlights Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries: institutions funded by the Irish state and the Catholic Church, where “fallen” women and their children were enslaved in forced labor. In 20th-century Ireland, ‘fallen’ was broadly defined – if a woman was ‘sexually promiscuous’, pregnant out of wedlock, mentally ill or considered a burden on her family, laundromats were an appropriate solution. There, iron gates would keep her apart from society. Authoritarian nuns hurled verbal insults at “capricious” prisoners and subjected them to intense physical labor. I am appalled to read that the final laundry closed in 1996.

In a recent interview, Keegan suggested that Little things like these was not entirely “about” the Blanchisseries de la Madeleine. Rather, the institution “overshadows the community in which Bill Furlong lives. It’s his atmosphere. It’s the environment. The beautiful tale of family bonding, the “small” acts of kindness and caring come first; the tragic revelation completes the novel.

While Keegan paints the suffering, the beauty of his language is not lost. Where a laundry girl begs him to take her home, Furlong shows her “open and empty hands”; the image quietly reveals the powerlessness of Irish communities, eclipsed by the monolithic Church and State. In another scene, Furlong finds a young mother locked in a coal shed, and as he places her woolen coat over her shoulders, she tells him about the infant son she rarely sees. Keegan does not shy away from depicting atrocities, but approaches them with emotional sensitivity.

There are those who will laugh Little things like these as sentimental. I feel like he subtly tells the truth and accurately portrays the family warmth of Celtic culture. Keegan avoids the melodrama that pervades Kenneth Branagh Belfast (2021), where Catholic suffering manifests itself in epic skirmishes and love in grand gestures; likewise, she avoids the hyperrealism of Douglas Stuart Shuggie bath (2020), where the social ills of Glasgow society are detailed through graphic abuse and trauma. Keegan’s style in Little things like these is restrained, allowing the novel a delicate beauty that shimmers throughout.

Often, beautiful language can veil powerful meaning, touching the reader in ways dry rhetoric cannot. Claire Keegan writes a tale as beautiful as the snow-capped evergreens of the small country town, and through that beauty she discovers what is real. As Keats noted, after all, beauty is truth, beauty truth.

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