‘It is 1985, in an Irish town. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, faces into his busiest season. As he does the rounds, he feels the past rising up to meet him – and encounters the complicit silences of a people controlled by the Church.
The long-awaited new work from the author of Foster, Small Things Like These is an unforgettable story of hope, quiet heroism and tenderness.
A slim quiet novel that explores the traumatic history of the Magdalen laundries in Ireland but which for me is ultimately a little too quiet and distant from that trauma.
What I Liked
- Bill Furlong’s character: he was quietly noble and thoughtful with a great interiority
- The deep sense of love Bill had for his wife and daughters
- The fragility of the world created by Keegan that felt deeply authentic where the dividing line between success and ruin was paper thin
What Could Have Been Different
- The horrors and trauma of the Magdalen laundries felt very restrained and controlled by Keegan and perhaps we needed to be more confronted by it?
I only came across Keegan because her book was longlisted for the Booker Prize this year so I approached this with no expectation whatsoever. And the is something deeply compelling and moving in this novel, but also somehow it has been incredibly hard to review…
The plot is relatively simple, as perhaps befits the slimness of the novel: Bill Furlong spends a few days before Christmas with his family and running his coal and timber merchant business. These dark days of November seem an apt time to read it! Alongside making mince pies and putting up trees, Bill visits the Good Shepherd Convent and stumbles upon the Magdalen laundry housed there, and one of its horrifically ill treated inmates, before returning her to the care of the nuns. Will he return again to rescue her?
Bill Furlong has a degree of respectability in the town but he also comes across as an outsider. He is a bastard – his own mother had been an unwed mother and would have been at risk of incarceration in the Magdalen laundries herself had not her employer, the generous Mrs Wilson, given her support.
Keegan writes very tellingly and very poignantly of a moment in Irish history in the 1980s – a moment of deprivation and poverty – and a community that feels almost a generation behind my own memories of Thatcher’s Britain. The town feels loomed over by the twin edifices of the convent and St Margaret’s, its school next door and “the only good school for girls in the town”.
For this reason, Furlong is particularly primed to sympathise with the “small shut-down thing”, the girl “just about fit to stand, with her hair roughly cut” that he discovers in a coal shed who had been there “longer than the night” surrounded by her own excrement. The girl whose fourteen-week old baby had been taken from her. The girl, Sarah, who bears his own mother’s name. At the same time, his own status as a bastard, the size of his family, the Catholic Church’s hold over the community are powerful incentives for his not rocking the boat.
Keegan actually explores that stranglehold really well when Furlong returns the girl. The cup of tea with the Mother Superior is exquisitely crafted as she asks
“So, is all well at home, Billy?” she began… “And your girls? How are they? I hear that two of yours are making some progress with their music lessons here. And don’t you have another two next door…?” Won’t they all soon find themselves next door, in time to come, God willing.”
“God willing, Mother.”
“It’s just that there’s so many nowadays. It’s no easy task to find a place for everyone.”
Furlong’s family – a family whom he loves deeply – is twisted into a tool to control him and it is chillingly delivered in the politest terms over a cup of tea.
It is no doubt that the Magdalen Laundries are a stain on Irish and Catholic history – the terrible punishing conditions and treatment of young, vulnerable girls and their babies – and Keegan dedicates the novel to those women and children “who suffered time in Ireland’s mother and baby homes and Magdalen laundries”. The laundry itself, however, is curiously absent from the pages of the novel which does feel a little misjudged – no one wants to revel in those horrors but something just to illustrate Sarah’s plight further felt missing.
Keegan’s writing is deceptively straightforward, her language familiar and domestic, but somehow investing the familiar routines and rituals of family, work and life with both virtue and meaning. The novel is full of quiet, intimate and tender moments that take on a beauty of their own: the evening described in Chapter Three when Bill and Eileen make the Christmas cake and this girls write letters to Santa and are allowed to stay up late with Ribena and toasting soda bread on the Rayburn is exquisite.
… something caught in his throat – as though there might never again be another night like this.
Bill is a very reflective character and feels a little unsettled somehow and wistful, caught up in the busyness of life and chores and family. “What would life be like, he wondered, if they were given time to reflect over things? Might their lives be different or much the same – or would they lose the run of themselves?” He is also a man “inclined to imagine another life, elsewhere, and wondered if this was not something in his blood; might his own father not have been one of those who had upped suddenly and taken the boat for England?”
Bill’s absent father is a rather ghostly presence in Bill’s narrative and his identity and through Bill we visit his own past as a boy growing up. The father’s absence feels like an open sore for Bill and the memory of his writing to ask Santa for his father to come home and being inevitably disappointed was hugely poignant.
What Bill got for Christmas was a rather unwanted copy of A Christmas Carol and the parallels between the Dickens and Keegan are telling. Like Scrooge, Bill has to make a decision about his life on Christmas Eve and an innocent girl’s fate seems to depend on it just as Tiny Tim’s future depends on Scrooge.
Plot / Pace:
Faber & Faber
21st October 2021