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Review: Can one good person redeem a nation’s shame? A novel explores Ireland’s Laundries

A woman wearing black against a gray wall.
Claire Keegan’s slim first novel, “Small Things Like These,” packs a punch.
(Frederic Stucin / Pasco)

On the Shelf

'Small Things Like These'

By Claire Keegan
Grove Press: 128 pages, $20

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The horrors of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries have been documented in countless books, films and even a Joni Mitchell song — and now in a short, powerful novel, “Small Things Like These.” But as they remain lesser-known among the evil institutions of recent history — there’s a lot of competition — a primer might be in order on these Catholic state-sanctioned homes for “fallen women.”

Over more than two centuries, the Laundries took in more than bedsheets and dish towels; they accepted women and girls often labeled prostitutes, though their purported sins more often encompassed unwed motherhood, petty theft or simply a failure to fit in.

With no other social-welfare system and no oversight of the religious orders that ran the Laundries, the women consigned thereto experienced everything from deprivation to abuse and death. In 1993, when Sisters of Our Lady of Charity’s Magdalene Laundry was found to have 133 corpses in its garden, opponents finally had proof that these were not havens of security but rather centers of cruelty. The last of the Laundries shuttered three years later, but it was not until 2013 that the government officially apologized to victims; reparations remain under discussion.

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The acclaimed Irish author Claire Keegan might, at 53, be just slightly too young to have experienced the threat of the Laundries. (Sinead O’Connor, just a year older, was sent to one as a teenager.) Keegan grew up in a large Catholic family in County Wicklow and left Ireland, at 17, for Loyola University in New Orleans, then earned a master’s in writing at the University of Wales. Her debut story collection, “Antarctica,” was on The Times’ list of best books of 2001. Her second, “Walk the Blue Fields,” was among the New Yorker’s 2008 favorites.

More than 20 years after the official end of Northern Ireland’s civil war, conflicts still simmer — and a potent, page-turning genre takes stock.

For all her earlier accolades, “Small Things Like These,” Keegan’s first novel, enters the world this month with the shocking force of a debut. With its main text running to just 70 pages, it might have been deemed a novella, but it earns the greater designation. Keegan, whose short stories contain unusual depth and grandeur (see, for example, “Foster”), is the only contemporary writer who could manage the feat of a completely imagined, structured and sustained world with such brevity.

The Ireland of the novel, set in 1985, has not entered the modern world of its neighbor, the U.K., never mind the far-off United States. Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, lives with his wife, Eileen, and their five daughters in a small town filled with “shop-keepers and tradesmen, men and women in the post office and the dole queue, the mart, the coffee shop and supermarket, the bingo hall, the pubs and the chipper.” These clauses form only a part of a longer sentence about the raw weather of a late Irish autumn. Has anyone ever summed up a small town so succinctly?

Despite their environs, those men and women have grand plans. As the Christmas holidays approach, Keegan sketches out the mundanities of their lives with delicate strokes: Bill’s workers lunch at Kehoe’s, receiving “fish & chips on Fridays” — a subtle reminder of the enduring cultural hold of the Roman Catholic Church.

The green cover of "Small Things Like These," by Claire Keegan
(Grove Atlantic)

The Furlong family’s holiday preparations are so blissfully simple, they make a 21st century reader want to donate her possessions to a recycling collective and join the #vanlife. One evening, Eileen decides it’s past time to make the Christmas cake, which becomes a family affair. Bill creams the butter and sugar, Eileen prepares a lined baking tin, and the daughters chop up dried fruits. After such a festive task, they allow the girls to stay up late: “Sheila made up a jug of Ribena while Furlong stationed himself at the door of the Rayburn, toasting slabs of soda bread, comically, on the long fork, which the girls buttered and spread with Marmite or lemon curd.” As for Bill, “something caught in his throat — as though there might never again be another night like this.”

Karen Powell’s “The River Within” is far more than a “Downton Abbey"-derived Yorkshire mystery; it’s the anatomy of a caste system that’s never gone away.

Bill knows how arbitrarily such small pleasures are apportioned, even before he sets foot in the town’s Laundry. Keegan’s trick is not just to put one of those satanic institutions nearby, but also to show us how a country divided by religion, government and gender can rule and ruin individual lives. Bill grew up as the housekeeper’s boy in a grand Protestant house; he never met his father, the only male influence on his life another household retainer named Ned. Bill felt so estranged from his peers that when he won a spelling prize, “for a whole day or more, Furlong had gone around feeling a foot taller, believing, in his heart, that he mattered as much as any child.”

To spoil the ending of such a slim book would be churlish; yet it’s no spoiler, merely illumination, to say that Bill’s lonely, stilted childhood comes into play as the story barrels toward its surprising conclusion. The local convent, a “powerful-looking place” that looks “like a Christmas card,” is 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.” Everyone gossips about the overworked charges, but everyone also sends laundry there, because it is returned “same as new.”

An encounter Bill has with the nuns and girls at Good Shepherd while making a delivery will change the course of his life and the lives of others. But first, he speaks of it to his wife, who responds, “If you want to get on in life, there’s things you have to ignore, so you can keep on.” Bill cannot ignore the inhumanity he witnessed and heard of at the Laundry, not when he understands what it feels like to matter less than others.

Over what would amount to a couple of chapters in another novel, Keegan manages to place her characters and her readers at the center of an essential human dilemma: Will we turn a blind eye to evil in our midst, or will we take some action against it, even if it consists of just one small thing? As Keegan’s concise, capacious new book demonstrates, little acts can lead to real change.

Before Britney, Demi or even the Dixie Chicks, Sinéad O’Connor said what she thought, did what she wanted and refused to be shut down.

Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.


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