Economic in word count, morally visceral in its impact, Small Things Like These places Ireland’s inhumane Magdalene Laundries under the microscope.
It’s 1985 and Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, lives with his wife, Eileen, and their five daughters in a small, typical Irish town of shopkeepers, small businesses (including Bill’s), a cafe, a pub, a church – and a Catholic state-sanctioned Magdalene Laundry.
Ostensibly a home for ‘fallen women’, the laundries were found throughout Ireland where the young women experienced everything from deprivation to abuse and death. In making a delivery as Christmas approaches, Bill encounters one of the girls hiding in the coal hole of the convent, run by the Good Shepherd nuns as a training school there for girls, providing them with a basic education. They also ran a laundry business. The abuse of their charges is the worst kept secret in the town yet the laundry services continue to be used.
Bill’s encounter changes the course of his life and that of his family, but not before his wife warns him If you want to get on in life, there’s things you have to ignore, so you can keep on. It’s not something Bill can do.
Claire Keegan’s debut novel is far from being the first exposé of the abuses endemic within the laundries, but short and capacious, it is deeply affecting.
Shortlisted for 2022 Booker Prize, Small Things Like These lost out to The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka.