Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (Booker Prize 2022 Longlist)

As they carried on along and met more people Furlong did and did not know, he found himself asking was there any point in being alive without helping one another? Was it possible to carry on along though all the years, the decades, through an entire life, without once being brave enough to go against what was there and yet call yourself a Christian, and face yourself in the mirror?

p. 113

Perhaps that sounds sappy to you: calling yourself a Christian and being brave enough to help someone else. But, I do not think there is anything more important in the world than to love one another. Especially when it’s hard.

Out of his own experience, Furlong knows what it is like to not fit in, not belong, get questionable looks from strangers. He does not know who his father is; he is raised by the Protestant widow for whom his mother worked. She did not cast his mother out of the house in her unmarried condition, rather she took the responsibility for raising Furlong herself.

It is Christmas, and the Irish town is hushed in snow. The people are struggling with poverty, and cold, and hardly enough means to pay Furlong for the coal or wood which he delivers on threadbare tires.

His wife makes the Christmas cake, with the help of each member of the family, and then the daughters sit at the kitchen table to write their letters to Santa.

Furlong remembers his childhood, asking for a 500 piece jigsaw puzzle with a picture of a farm on it. When he woke there were three presents under the tree: a bar of soap and a comb wrapped together, a hot water bottle from Ned, the farmhand, and an old copy of A Christmas Carol which smelled musty. He cries out his disappointment privately, in the barn.

“Daddy?” Sheila said.

“Santy came, surely,” Furlong said. “He brought me a jigsaw of a farm one year.”

“A jigsaw? Was that all?”

p. 25

Oh, that part pierces me. Even more than when he makes a delivery to the convent and finds a girl shut away in the coal house. A girl whose breasts leak milk and asks one thing of him: “Won’t you ask them about my baby?”

It is the experiences of our lives that make us who we are, and yet so many opportunities arise in which we must make a choice: do we help? Or, do we go on with our eyes down?

It’s like when Furlong comes across an old man in a waistcoat with a bill-hook, slashing thistles by the side of the road. He asks the man, “Would you mind telling me where this road will take me?”

“This road?” The man put down the hook, leant on the handle and stared in at him. “This road will take you wherever you want to go, son.”

p. 46

Loved this book. Loved, loved, loved it.

At 116 pages, Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These is the shortest book recognised in the prize’s history – the shortest to win was Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (1979) at 132 pages (thebookerprizes.com)

Find an excellent review of Small Things Like These at Read Her Like An Open Book.