Women’s Bodies and Institutions: Christmas as a Catalyst in Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These

Review by Natalie van den Berg

“This story is dedicated to the women and children who suffered time in Ireland’s mother and baby homes and Magdalen laundries.”

With the narration of this line from the dedication in the novella, one of my co-presenters opened our presentation on Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These. She then asked who in the group was familiar with what happened in these mother and baby homes. Only three people put their hand up.

I was delighted when I first saw that this book was on the shortlist for the Man Booker prize earlier this year. Having done various courses on Irish history and literature during my bachelor’s degree, I thought having such an important, and unfortunately often overlooked, part of Irish history brought to a wider audience through this nomination would be a good thing. Like my anecdote earlier showed, there are many people completely unaware what exactly happened in these mother and baby homes.

Between the 18th and 20th centuries these homes and laundries housed ‘fallen women’ under the supervision of the Catholic church. This included women who had become pregnant out of wedlock, but also those who were deemed flirtatious or seductive. Although the front was that they were taking care of and rehabilitating these women, in reality many of them were abused and kept against their will. Another thing that is overlooked is how recently this all has taken place. Una Mullally notes that in 1993 a mass grave with these women’s bodies was discovered, bringing the horrible practice to light. Erin Blakemore adds that it was not until 2013 that a formal apology and compensation were given to the survivors by the Irish government. More graves have been found since.

This is one of the reasons why Small Things Like These is an important read for anyone this winter. This novellareveals some of the horrors that took place in these institutions. Keegan’s story revolves around Bill Furlong, a merchant and a father of five daughters living an ordinary life in an unassuming town. However, he cannot get rid of a feeling of listlessness. After one day going to the convent to deliver timber, he notices a girl named Sarah who appears to be in a dire condition, but the arrival of the nuns make him turn away and go home. Furlong feels weighed down by guilt about abandoning the girl, and eventually, before Christmas arrives, he returns to the convent and retrieves her in order to help her. He ends up feeling more elated than he has been in a long time and is proud to face any difficulties this decision will bring.

Small Things Like These does so much more than only bring this forgotten history to light. Initially when I picked up Claire Keegan’s novella I was so focused on the idea of a story set in Irish history – which is what was primarily advertised for this novel – that I gave the winter-themed cover little thought when I opened the book and started reading. However,I soon got immersed in a Christmassy atmosphere through Keegan’s poetic writing style. To my surprise, I ended up finding a Christmas story charged with critical historical and social commentary.

There are a few reasons for the Christmas story-esque feeling I got from the novella, such as the setting of the story and the diction used. The novella reaches the Christmas month quickly: it exchanges the month October for November by the second line, and November for December after two chapters. In the first page alone, Keegan paints a setting with bare trees, smoking chimneys, and children with pulled-up hoods. The diction sets the tone for cold and winter, seen in phrases such as “unhappily endured the weather”, “the cold”, “rain”, and “another raw-cold day.” It sets the stage for the Christmas time the rest of the story takes place in. 

Christmas seems to be an important element in the story, and it is no surprise that Furlong has an epiphany on Christmas day. Keegan builds up to Furlong’s epiphany quite expertly by gradually introducing the reader to his shortcomings and ethical pondering. There are multiple times where Furlong becomes aware of the discrepancies between his thoughts and his actions:

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.

Besides the moral questions Furlong camps with, he also ponders upon the idea of Christmas as a sort of catalyst of human nature, noting that it brings out “the best and the worst in people.” Another moment where he knows something is not morally right, but does not take action to change it, is the following:

For a good while they waited there in the cold, on the front step. He could have taken her on then, he knew, and considered taking her to the priest’s house or on home with him – but she was such a small, shut-down thing, and once more the ordinary part of him simply wanted to be rid of this and get on home.

Furlong is constantly confronted with his own disregard towards the poor and the situation in the laundry. Keegan’s skillful placing of signals about something dark happening at the convent stands in stark contrast with her serene and poetic writing style, creating an eerie presence in the book. There is something going on in this small town. Its inhabitants know it. Furlong knows it. You know it. But all the signs show that everyone is trying to turn a blind eye to whatever is happening. Furlong tries to bring up his suspicions and worries about the convent on numerous occasions, such as to his wife and to the local pub’s landlady, Mrs. Kehoe, but both times he gets swept along with their implicit argumentation that he must look after his own. However, he feels torn because of his own upbringing as a child who did not know his father, and feels guilt as he knows such a fate could have been his mother’s and his own.

Furlong’s continuous restlessness and discontent with his life seem to come to an end after he realizes his responsibility and makes the decision to go back to the convent and take the girl Sarah home with him. The way in which he finds her parallels the first time he came across her; however, this time he does the opposite, he does not let “the ordinary part of him” make the decision to go home. Although it takes him a while, Furlong eventually proves that Christmas brought the best out of him. Because Furlong’s hesitation is present throughout the entire narrative and only comes to an end in the last chapter when he makes the decision to help Sarah, it brings forth the idea that it is never too late to make a decision that will do good in the world.

When we look at Small Things Like These, it becomes apparent that women who get pregnant out of wedlock are seen as outcasts in society. They become shunned by their religion, community, and even family. The fate of the women in these laundries, and that of their babies, are in the hands of the institution of the Catholic Church. Since this all happened in Ireland’s recent history, it brings up the question about how things are now. Ann Cronin, in an article about the history of reproductive rights in Ireland, notes that “Ireland has a long history of gatekeeping women’s reproductive rights,” and although she is positive about the changes that have been made since then, she thinks that “there is still some progress to be made.” However, the notion of women’s reproductive rights reaches farther than Ireland, and the debate around women’s bodily autonomy is a global one. With the emergence of increasingly popular misogynistic online personalities, and debates about women’s reproductive healthcare and rights in many countries, women’s bodies are continuously criticized and politicized. One such example is what happened in the US this year. On June 24th, the Supreme Court of America made the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. This was a ruling that gave people the right to have an abortion. Following this decision, some states banned abortions, even without exception. Through the overturning of this ruling, women’s bodies became again something that is at the mercy of a powerful institution, and not something of their own.

I think the topic of women’s bodies and institutions is something we see in Small Things Like These as well. When Furlong comes across the girl Sarah, she repeatedly requests that he asks the nuns about her baby. When he gets the opportunity, he fails to do this. Sarah has to rely on others, and in this instance a man, to escape the institutions control over her, her child, and her body. This puts focus on what people outside these situations can do for people in these unfair positions. Furlong does not feel peace until he takes responsibility, until he takes the first step and does something to change the situation. By doing so, Keegan puts out a call to action to bystanders in these situations. People like Furlong, his wife, and other villagers, who so often turned a blind eye to what happens in these convents, have a responsibility to say something, to do something, to help those in unjust situations. And this is something that can apply to the contemporary situation regarding abortion as well: if people who should have the authority over their own bodies cannot have that, and are not able to change the situation by themselves, it is up to the bystanders to join their cause, so that institutions cannot have, or reclaim, power over people’s bodily autonomy.

Thus, the novella brings forgotten aspects of Irish history to light and calls our attention to the fate of these women and children in these laundries. It brings up questions about the power institutions such as the Church hold, and also the responsibility people themselves have when they see malpractices in their surroundings. Despite this being the case, the novella’s narrative seems quite separated from its historical information. Disregarding the way the book is advertised, the first time the laundries are mentioned is in the dedication, which is to the women and children who had suffered in these laundries.

Nevertheless, the actual story that follows it does not explicitly mention any of this. Let’s consider it from the perspective of someone who is unaware of the historical context of its plot. The novella, instead of a commentary on Magdalene laundries, transforms into something that is almost a thriller-mystery: what are the nuns hiding? What is going on at the convent? Due to the open ending and not addressing explicitly what Sarah’s experience was in the convent, such a reader would not be aware about the narrative’s mirroring of a real historical event until the author’s notes on the text after the last chapter. In a way, it seems that this story is sandwiched between a dedication and after-story note of historical context. I think this could have been integrated into the story somehow, to make a more streamlined and united story with both the fictional and historical aspect present in the narrative itself. However, had this acknowledgement not been included at all, the greater cultural implications of this work would have been lost, so the inclusion of them were crucial, even though the way it has been done feels a bit separate from the text itself.

That, however, is the only qualm I have with this novel. I cannot recommend it enough (although I would strongly suggest to read it in the winter months to heighten your immersion into its wintery atmosphere). The juxtaposition between Keegan’s serene writing style and the dark undertones of the narrative itself brings a distinctive feeling to the work that makes it both pleasant and intriguing to read for anyone. The narrative brings these untold stories to light, and uses Christmas as a catalyst to show the good and bad in people’s decisions. This novella also calls attention to yet another way in which women have been mistreated by institutions. The way Small Things Like These foregrounds the main character’s guilt and realization of his responsibility, makes its readers think about their own responsibility in these still contemporary issues as well, something that is especially important given the current socio-political debates surrounding women’s bodily autonomy and reproductive rights. Therefore, this book should be on everyone’s reading list this coming winter season.

Natalie van den Berg is currently enrolled in the MA program Literature Today at Utrecht University, and is a member of the PR team of RevUU. She has found a love for poetry and creative writing during her BA English Language and Culture, and is interested in appearances of literature in other media like games and television, of which she is an avid consumer as well. She likes cuddling with her dog while reading whatever new thing she has picked up at one of her local book stores, whether it’s an old classic, an enticing comic, or a recently released poetry collection.

Works Cited 

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