Some of the books I read for Book Club are really not my sort of thing. I like to think I read them with good grace, and I really do try to find the best in them whilst admitting that I'm not the target readership for that sort of thing. Well, Claire Keegan's Small Things Like These is definitely, absolutely and without a doubt, my sort of book.
First, it's short, so short that I read it in not much more than a couple of hours. Not that I don't like long books, but I find that writers of short stories and novellas focus more on precise language and pared-down plots because there's little room for meandering or pontificating. Hence, you get beautiful, lush language that paints detailed images of landscape and character. Every word has to have meaning. Consider, "blades of cold slid under doors and cut the knees off those who still knelt to say the rosary." It's not just cold, it's freezing, and these people aren't just your normal church-goers, they're probably old, practising old style relgion, surrendering themselves, and possibly others too, to suffering for their beliefs. They are both hardy and hard.
There are also characters in this story who melt the heart, or make you uneasy, angry even. Here's a husband and wife discussing those less fortunate than themselves: "You know some of these bring the hardship on themselves?" to which the answer, "‘Tis not the child’s doing, surely." Then, "Drink is what ails him. If he’d any regard for his children, he’d ... pull himself out of it." The reply, "Maybe the man isn’t able."
The story, set in rural southern Ireland, seems a simple one, but it raises questions about what it is to be human, where religious dogma can lead, and how power is wielded and maintained. After reading the Epigraph, "Excerpt from ‘The Proclamation of the Irish Republic’, 1916" I was shocked to discover the fictional events take place in 1985. At the beginning I imagined the story was set in the 1930s or maybe as late as the 1950s. Even more shocking is the final Note on the Text, in which you discover that it could as easily have been set in the mid-1990s.
Enough. I'm trying to give away as little of the story as possible because it's so short. So, I'll end with praise for the ending. My Book Club colleagues know I'd rather an unhappy, or inconclusive ending to a traditional happy outcome. Claire Keegan has cleverly combined all of these three in one.
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