These are censorious times. Every day, we are called upon by all that is happening around us, to take a stand, speak up, to take action. However convinced we may be about our opinion, and it may come from an informed platform, we do not always make the choices our hearts lead us to.
We shy away from taking up cudgels on behalf of an afflicted one. There is too much at stake. But, once in a while, you read a book in which a character faces a similar dilemma, where to exist means to take a stand, where to take a stand means a threat to that very existence, and walking away means opting for an inauthentic life. It means not taking the path towards which your moral compass directs you.
Small Things Like These
There is also the crucial matter of repaying kindnesses offered to you when you needed them, without which you may not be in the position that you are in, equipped like those redeemed, to pay back. In ‘Small Things Like These’, a novella, the author, Claire Keegan, touches upon these issues in a moving, tender way. The epigraph is an excerpt from ‘The Proclamation of the Irish Republic’, 1916. It’s close to Christmas time when the story begins in the town of New Ross. The trees are yellowing. Autumn has set in. The protagonist, Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, lives here with his wife Eileen, and their five daughters. These are hard times, but they get by. Bill is a hardy, industrious man, with a soft core. The pain of not knowing who sired him simmers inside. Periodically, he remembers the kindness of Mrs Wilson who shelters his single mother. Without her, the duo would have been rendered destitute. While he acknowledges his decent life, sometimes, he wonders about how it would feel to live differently. These are fleeting thoughts.
A Question of Choice
One day, he meets a young mother locked out in the cold in a nunnery where he supplies coal. There is something unsavoury going on, and from the whispers, he hears, and his own surmises, it is evident that the church is complicit. He knows that the girl needs help, and reaching out is the right thing to do. But he has a family to fend for, and the consequences could be disastrous. It could mean the end of his livelihood and that of his family. The battle rages on in his heart, questions arise, and yet, only his truth can set him free.
The Magdalene Laundries in Ireland also known as Magdalene asylums were institutions usually run by Roman Catholic orders. They were set up ostensibly to house ‘fallen’ women, an estimated 30,000 of whom were confined in these institutions. In 1993, unmarked graves of 155 women were uncovered in the convent of one of the laundries. The horror of this institution has been captured in this book, as also the quiet heroism that comes to the fore when his integrity drives a character.
This is powerful humanist fiction, compact and captivating, raising the big question: What would we do in such a situation? The answers could make us uncomfortable and put us on a quest to live more authentically.
I have so loved this book that I have bought ‘Foster’ by the same author, and it’s way up on my TBR list.
Archana Pai Kulkarni is the Books Editor at SheThePeople. The views expressed are the author’s own.
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Suggested reading: Wintering: When It’s Time to Retreat