Not Excluding People from the Picture: An Exploration of Human Kindness in Small Things Like These

Review by Susi Westerveld

The saying don’t judge a book by its cover doesn’t apply to me, for it is precisely the covers of books that draw me to them. This also counts for Claire Keegan’s novel Small Things Like These, which was shortlisted for the 2022 Man Booker Prize. The picture on the cover of my edition portrays a quaint wintery scene: a distant mountain range is blanketed with a layer of snow and the silhouettes of ice-skating people are depicted on a frozen lake between townhouses. Interestingly, only a small part of the original painting – The Hunters in the Snow by the Dutch painter Pieter Breughel the Elder – is displayed. As can be seen in the picture below, the section that has been cut out shows three men returning from a hunt with several dogs in tow. The men appear downtrodden for their heads are bent low. Even the dogs, with their drooping ears, seem dejected. Before I began my reading, I wondered how the story would connect to the act of cutting out a piece from the larger picture.

The Hunters in the Snow –Pieter Brueghel the Elder ca. 1565

Set in the Irish winter of 1985, the first chapter of Small Things Like These opens to an impression of the changing seasons in the town of New Ross: “In October there were yellow trees. Then the clocks went back the hour and the long November winds came in and blew, and stripped the trees bare.” The winter months are the busiest for Bill Furlong, whose job as the local wood and coal seller has the townspeople lining up outside his door, demanding their share of coal before the holidays begin. His long working days leave him with little room to be with his wife Eileen and their five daughters. Nevertheless, Furlong is grateful that he is able to provide for his family. He frequently reminisces about his past and the kindness that was extended to him and his single mother. Yet, despite his current stability, Furlong finds himself “looking on into the mechanics of the days, and the trouble ahead.” His contemplations only increase after he encounters a young woman locked away in the convent’s coal house. The town’s complicit silence following his discovery reveals that something sinister lurks beneath the mundanities of daily life in New Ross.

Several chapters of Small Things Like These start with vignettes. Here, the narrator momentarily zooms out to provide us with a bird’s eye view of, for example, the town’s surrounding areas or of the Nativity scene set up in the main square. These descriptive passages serve to set the mood for the rest of the chapter and are filled with symbolism. One vignette in particular shares a notable connection with the painting on the cover. At the start of the fourth chapter, the narrator comments on the large number of crows that have descended on New Ross. The description of the crows is ominous: the birds are “scavenging for what was dead” and plunge towards anything that seems edible. The narrator also explicitly mentions that the birds roost around the convent.

Accordingly, the part of the painting The Hunters in the Snow that is displayed on the novel’s cover includes a crow hovering above the snow-covered town. By zooming in on this particular part of the painting and by describing the crows near the convent in an eerie manner, Keegan foreshadows the sinister side to this Catholic-run institution. Like the crows that eye prey from above, the convent’s watchful eyes are ever present, keeping those who deviate from the Catholic Church’s preconceived rules in check.

The narrator informs us that, aside from providing women with a basic education, the convent runs a successful laundry business. However, this is only its outward appearance. For decades the true nature of these Irish laundries, collectively referred to as the Magdalene laundries, was kept silent. Under the supervision of the Catholic Church, the laundries took in thousands of women who had been labeled as ‘fallen.’ Yet, in practice, these Magdalene laundries were nothing more than prisons for women who had birthed children out of wedlock. The women were incarcerated because they threatened the Catholic Church’s moral ideals.

What struck Keegan about this historical scandal is the silence of the public. In an interview with the Man Booker Foundation, she expresses her astonishment about the fact that so many people did nothing to aid the women. It is only in recent years that the Catholic Church and Irish society at large have begun to make amends for this dark page in Ireland’s history books. The scandal of the Magdalene laundries reminds me of the picture on the cover of Small Things Like These. The exclusion of the hunters from the cover echoes the exclusion of the fallen women from Irish society; the ‘failures’ were cut out of the picture.

Returning to the novel, the convent and its laundry business are introduced through circulating rumors. While some villagers claim the place is a mother-and-baby home, others say the nuns earn money by selling illegitimate children. By introducing the institution through rumors, Keegan shows us that the citizens of New Ross are indifferent towards what is truly happening inside. Like the villagers, Furlong has heard of the rumors but doesn’t let them deter him from delivering coal to the convent. He is, however, taken aback by what he encounters inside: young girls are polishing the floors on their knees, wearing little more than grey shifts.

Keegan uses sensory language to give us a vivid impression of the girls’ state. For instance, when they see Furlong, “they looked like they’d been scalded,” and their hair was “roughly cut, as though someone blind had taken to it with shears.” In addition, he notices the extreme measures the nuns have taken to keep the women inside: the doors have padlocks on them, and the high wall separating the convent from outside “was topped with broken glass.” These prison-like qualities are reminiscent of the crows roosting outside – keeping watch over the town and eying prey from above. What’s more, Furlong discovers a girl locked away in the convent’s outdoor coal house, the excrement on the floor suggesting she’s been in there for more than a night. He must decide whether to take the girl with him or return her to the nuns, who are clearly abusing the women under their care.

The narrative of Small Things Like These made me think of a story my mother once told me. Around the same time that Furlong encounters the young woman in the coal shed, my grandfather encountered two Vietnamese siblings in a diner in Windsor, Ontario. The boy of nineteen and the girl of nine had fled by boat from Vietnam to Canada. My grandfather observed that the siblings owned little and were not properly dressed for the cold weather outside. In this moment, he could’ve chosen to walk away; with a big family back at home, he had enough on his hands. Yet, he decided to take the siblings with him.

Similarly, Furlong wonders whether it is wise to take the coal-stained girl with him to his house. Only recently his wife had scolded him for being too soft-hearted, saying that “’[i]f you wanted to get on in life, there’s things you have to ignore.’” Nearing the age of forty, Furlong faces an identity crisis. So far, he has kept his past at bay by over-working, but lately he has found himself wondering about the identity of his unknown father. Born to an unwed girl, Furlong suffered the harassment afforded to illegitimate children in Ireland. Nevertheless, compared to others in his situation, Furlong and his sixteen-year-old mother had been lucky. His mother’s employer, the wealthy widow Mrs. Wilson, had allowed her to remain working and had provided them with lodgings.

Finding the girl in the coal house confronts him with a life that could’ve been his mother’s. Because of this, his decision to return the girl to the convent may come as a surprise, but I find that it makes him a realistic character. Keegan provides us with a liminal person who is both part and not part of the scandal: Furlong was harassed because of his illegitimacy, but escaped the fate of a laundry child. It is through his liminality that we learn about the social implications of the Magdalene laundries. Growing up in a society that brandishes single mothers as fallen, I find it quite understandable that Furlong hesitates to bring the girl to his home. Helping her might have unforeseen consequences, ones that would not only affect him, but his family as well. At the time, aside from the public’s prejudices against single mothers and their offspring, the Catholic-run laundries were powerful institutions in league with government authorities. Furlong knows very well what it means to be an outcast in society, which has made him even more determined “to keep his head down and stay on the right side of people.” Would it, therefore, be wise for him to risk his and his family’s wellbeing for a stranger in need?

Nevertheless, in the days following his run-in, Furlong often finds his thoughts straying back to the young woman. During weekly mass, on his trips to customers or even when he’s with his family, he repeatedly pictures the girl whom he left sitting alone at an empty table, “breast milk leaking under the little cardigan and staining her blouse.” On Christmas Eve his contemplations reach a breaking point and he finds himself walking through the snow to the convent.

Strikingly, Keegan once more incorporates a crow in a scene related to the convent: on his way up, Furlong encounters “a black cat eating from the carcass of a crow.” The dead crow foreshadows what Furlong plans on doing. Like the black cat, he intends to go against the convent’s authority, hereby ‘killing’ the predatory gaze that made him conform to the Catholic Church’s predetermined rules. Knowing what he knows about the convent’s laundry and having received the brunt of people’s prejudices, Furlong has come to realize how the kindness of his mother’s employer enabled his freedom. He wonders what the point of being alive is if he can’t similarly help others in need and sets out to do what he should have done in the first place. Upon arriving at the convent, he finds the same young woman locked up in the coal house. Only this time, he doesn’t return her to the nuns.

Even though Keegan doesn’t offer us a look at what happens when Furlong brings the girl to his home, with Small Things Like These she teaches us the importance of extending kindness to others – what including people in the picture means. Rather than going along with the town’s exclusion of the ‘fallen’ women, Furlong responded to the girl’s plea for help. In our current times where exclusion is still common, Keegan provides a hopeful note with a character whose disposition doesn’t remain influenced by society’s practice of exclusion. Similar to how my grandfather’s story functioned as an example to me, Small Things Like These shows us how one small act of kindness can make a lifetime of difference in someone else’s life. And this is worth going out in the cold for, regardless of the consequences.

Susi Westerveld has recently completed her BA in English Language and Culture at Utrecht University, and considers herself a true bibliophile. If she’s not playing with her cat or watching Japanese anime, you’ll find her curled up in a cozy spot with a cup of tea and a fantasy book. She has found her place at the MA program Literature Today and sees herself working as a professional writer in the future, delving further into the relevance of cultural memory and transculturality. 

Works Cited 

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