Claire Keegan’s “Small Things Like These” & “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”

Claire Keegan’s stunning novella, Small Things Like These,  longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, is written in such spare, chiseled prose that there is an emotional disconnect.  The contrast between the subtle style and the hero’s emotions is chillingly effective.  The writing is gorgeous, yet restrained.

It is the Christmas season in Ireland in 1985. The middle-aged protagonist, Bill Furlong, a small-town merchant who delivers coal, turf, slack,  logs, and anthracite, is wondering what his life is for.  He contemplates heroism in a moment of weakness, or strength, depending on your point-of-view.  There will be consequences, because his depression and heroism are interlinked.  

Furlong is wretchedly unhappy. He and his wife struggle to take care of their large family.  His monotonous work routine supports their five daughters, two of whom are at an expensive Catholic school.  He worries about money, about his own misery, about the worn-out tires on his delivery truck. 

One early Sunday morning, he delivers wood to the convent, and finds a barefoot, half-frozen girl locked in the woodshed.  He marches her to the convent:  the girl says, “Won’t you ask them about my baby?” He talks to the nuns, who pretend to be concerned about the girl, not to have known where she was, and they send her to take a bath and cook her an enormous breakfast.  They also deliver a veiled warning to Furlong.   

The nuns are running a Magdalen laundry.  Furlong has heard stories, but never knew what to believe.  Now he identifies with the imprisoned girl because of his background: he was an illegitimate child, raised by his mother, a domestic worker who got pregnant when she was 16, and he didn’t end up in an orphanage or an institution, because Mrs. Wilson, his mother’s kind employer, let them stay. He grew up in Mrs. Wilson’ kitchen.  

And so he worries about the girl.  Both his wife and another woman warn him about the power of the church, and tell him he needs to forget what he has seen. 

This book is about his dilemma.  

I admired this novella very much.  It was only afterwards that I realized the voice was perhaps a little too restrained.  But this does not mean it isn’t a perfect book.  It is.

 My complaint:  it should have been longer.This is the third Booker-longlisted book I’ve read this summer.  My favorite is Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William!, and Keegan’s novella, which is perfect in another style, comes in second.  

(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding

This summer I keep thinking about the lyrics of Elvis Costello’s song, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” 

 Because the summer has been spoiled by our next-door neighbors.  Not surprising – everybody has neighbors like that – but these are worse, because they’re Republican.  Years ago they posted a sign for a Republican candidate in our yard.  I marched over and told them to take it down immediately.  “We do not support that man or his beliefs.”

In the summer, we used to love sitting outside with a book. Not so much anymore, because the Repubs are noisy and have noisy guests.  Can you read while people in the pool are yelling, “Whe-e-w-w!” or swearing at the top of their lungs?  Just as you might suspect, the Repubs are trashy talkers. 

There is a constant stream of visitors.  We are curious about the two mysterious women who arrive every night at 11:30 and leave at 6 a.m.  I can’t imagine what they’re doing there.   Perhaps they are hookers, drug dealers… we’ll never know.

The most disruptive of their guests hold pool and hot tub parties .  The “guests” park on the street and traipse up the driveway into their back yard.  It occurred to us that the neighbors are probably renting out their pool and hot tub (perhaps via AirB&B).   

They are in violation of a city pool ordinance that decrees the gate to the fence around the pool must be shut and locked at all time. Their gate has been open and unlocked all summer.  Perhaps the inspector will come by sometime…

Now here’s a more normal complaint, though it is very upsetting:  they damaged (killed) some of our hostas when they power-washed their fence. The dirty water gushed through the slats.   But the Repubs claim our hostas, which we planted long before they moved here, are on their land.  (If so, why didn’t they fence it off with the rest of their yard?)

Next time they have a Repub fundraiser, I do think we should put up Democrat signs on their lawn.  We prefer to keep our political beliefs off our lawn.  It only makes for bad feeling.

Meanwhile, let me recite Elvis Costello’s (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding? 

Here are the lyrics.

As I walk through this wicked world
Searchin’ for light in the darkness of insanity
I ask myself, is all hope lost?
Is there only pain and hatred, and misery?
And each time I feel like this inside
There’s one thing I wanna know
What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding? Oh
What’s so funny ’bout peace love and understanding?
And as I walked on
Through troubled times
My spirit gets so downhearted sometimes
So where are the strong
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony?
Sweet harmony
‘Cause each time I feel it slippin’ away, just makes me wanna cry
What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding? Oh
What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?
So where are the strong?
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony?
Sweet harmony
‘Cause each time I feel it slippin’ away, just makes me wanna cry
What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding? Oh
What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding? Oh
What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?

Author: Kat

I am an avid reader. The book blog is the perfect forum for bookish musings. Enjoy!

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