December 20, 2022

Most modern Christmas “classics” look and feel as fake as a tinsel-draped plastic fir-tree. Though streaming services and Hollywood studios try to persuade us that their latest twist on the Elf who saved Christmas from the Grinch while Santa had a Holiday Romance will snare our affections forever, almost all of this formulaic fare has the shelf-life of tissue wrapping-paper. How curious, then, to watch what seems to be the emergence of a genuinely beloved seasonal story, with strong prospects of enduring fame, from that most marginal corner of the culture industries: literary fiction.

The Irish writer Claire Keegan published her fourth book, Small Things Like These, in late October 2021. This short novel (110 pages) rapidly won plenty of warm reviews and, this year, prizes too: the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award and — significantly — the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction.1 This autumn it reached the Booker Prize shortlist, and easily outsold the eventual winner. Just as noteworthy, Small Things Like These has been talked about, shared and given with the sort of spontaneous enthusiasm that publishers — who love to fabricate a bottom-up, word-of-mouth sensation — want to stimulate but seldom can.

Yes, this is a Christmas tale complete with fairy-lights, snowfalls, cribs, cakes, puddings, berries; even “a boy’s tall, unbroken voice” singing “O holy night, the stars are brightly shining”. Yet Keegan’s bleak midwinter fable offers the opposite of consensual uplift and cosy togetherness. Her wavering protagonist asks, in standard seasonal fashion, “was there any point in being alive without helping one another?”, but knows that the help he foresees may wreck his own and his family’s contentment. She enlists an array of tropes and accessories from the traditional Yuletide yarn, but turns them upside down: in some ways, Small Things Like These is Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in reverse. The widespread appreciation — indeed, love — it has garnered suggests not just a proper acknowledgement of its author’s gifts but a broader mood that its ambiguities have tapped. Here, after all, is an implicit denunciation of supposedly Christian institutions launched in the name of persistent Christian ideals. Keegan has spoken of her story as “a portrait of how difficult it was to practise being a good Christian in Catholic Ireland”.

In Ireland, in Britain, in the world at large, debates about the decay of religious allegiance and the march of “secularisation” often fail to ask what happens to the emotional legacy of faith when it fades, or else walks away from hypocritical and abusive institutions. The unforced success of Keegan’s book suggests that many readers crave a path through that inner limbo that tick-box surveys of religious attitudes and affiliations will never wholly recognise. Small Things Like These shows how much there was to fear, even to hate, among the Ghosts of Christmas Past; but equally, how hard it can be to recognise and follow more hopeful Ghosts of Christmas Yet to Come.

If you know the plot already, forgive me for a brief catch-up. (If you don’t, this paragraph ends with a spoiler.) In December 1985, Bill Furlong works as a thriving coal and timber merchant in the Co. Wexford town of New Ross, which straddles the River Barrow. With his wife, Eileen, and five daughters at home, he toils with some success to keep them while fellow-citizens grapple with recession-induced poverty and despair. Bill was born illegitimate and raised by a kindly, comparatively well-off Protestant widow, Mrs Wilson, after she took in his pregnant mother. Now, as Christmas nears, he visits the “powerful-looking” convent that looms over the town and finds, in a coal-shed, an imprisoned and maltreated girl. She labours in the mysterious “training school” and laundry run by the nuns and has had a new-born baby seized from her, its fate unknown. Although warned off by Mother Superior, wife and neighbours, Bill returns to the convent during a Christmas Eve snowstorm. He plans to undertake an act of rescue proving him “brave enough to go against what was there”. Keegan leaves the reader to imagine the outcomes of this deed as Bill leads the barefoot girl — “not one of his own” — home past aghast townsfolk through snow-bound streets under coloured lights. He feels, though, “the best bit of him was shining forth, and surfacing”.

Keegan dedicates the book to “the women and children who suffered time in Ireland’s mother and baby homes and Magdalene laundries”. The latter, dumping-grounds for pregnant, rebellious or simply wilful young women, were managed in Ireland by four religious orders both as punitive slave-labour workhouses and valuable commercial enterprises. They incarcerated and exploited perhaps 30,000 women. Many young women died; so did uncounted babies. Other infants were taken to be put up for adoption, in Ireland or abroad. As Keegan writes in a note, “Some or most” inmates, both parents and children, “lost the lives they could have had”. State and Church authorities colluded for decades in the impunity and secrecy of the laundries. After revelations about their cruelties added to a swelling tide of protest against institutional abuse in Ireland, an 18-month official enquiry led to the McAleese Report of 2013 — challenged as evasive and inadequate by survivor groups — and an apology from the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny.

However, Small Things Like These is not a slice of angry agitprop or a semi-documentary exposé; New Ross itself did have a Magdalene Laundry — but it had closed by 1967 (the last one in Ireland shut in 1996). It reads more like a story-book fable, a ballad, a fireside yarn studded with eerie, folkloric touches, from the birds who refuse to touch “a single berry on the holly bushes” around the accursed convent to the uncanny old man “in a waistcoat with a billhook” met on a lonely byway. He tells Bill that “This road will take you wherever you want to go, son”. For all its mid-Eighties allusions, the New Ross townscape seems marooned (like the Republic itself) in a retro dream, or nightmare. Keegan’s chiselled prose doubles down on this timeless, even archaic, flavour. Reviewers have likened the story to Chekhov’s short fiction but — in an Irish context — it’s impossible not to think of the style of “scrupulous meanness”, blending naturalism and symbolism, that James Joyce sought for the stories of Dubliners. The collection, remember, closes with a sort of Christmas tale, “The Dead”, in which a prosperous but uneasy man of forty-odd finally grasps the enduring grief and loss of a bereaved countrywoman — his wife, in this case — while the snow that “was general all over Ireland” falls quietly on the living and the dead.

Keegan is a meticulous stylist, but her book has surely ridden on non-literary currents that flow as strong and deep as the swollen waters of the Barrow that Bill crosses. It grows out of the Irish repudiation of Catholic social power that began around 1985, when a Dáil vote made non-prescription contraceptives legally available, and gathered force over the next three decades. Buttressed by secrecy and lies, the Church of Keegan’s New Ross still runs a closed shop that dictates and directs all aspects of life. Eileen warns Bill to “just mind what we have here and stay on the right side of people and soldier on”; their daughters, after all, need places at the high-achieving Catholic high school. Mrs Kehoe, the café proprietor who has heard gossip about about Bill’s “run-in with herself above at the convent”, likewise advises him to “keep the enemy close, the bad dog with you and the good dog will not bite”. As for “herself above”, the creepy Mother Superior, she hints, flatters and bribes Bill with all the sinister finesse of some top-flight secret-service chief. Indeed, Keegan’s vision of an all-encompassing Catholic gulag oddly resembles Warsaw Pact societies such as Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany at exactly this period. Few believed any more in the ideology of the ruling elite, but a comfortable life might be secured by prudent, silent obedience.

Keegan has written before of young women and girls who bear the brunt of systemic injustice (notably in her novella Foster). But Small Things Like These conspicuously shows women as chief enablers of oppression. The male priestly hierarchy, with their politician allies, may ultimately manage the show and fix its rules. Still, they hardly figure in the text. The one woman who has made Bill’s relatively safe and rich life possible — his protector Mrs Wilson — belonged to a minority community often treated as the enemy within by the post-colonial, but semi-theocratic, state that Eamon De Valera built from the Thirties. Keegan prefaces her story with an extract from the “Proclamation of the Irish Republic” issued by the Dublin insurgents of Easter 1916, which promised “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens”. As she demonstrates, the Republic broke that promise above all to women, and children, while it sidelined those of other faiths. Here it falls to a Catholic man, raised by a female outsider, to correct at least one small evil thing among the many encouraged by social conformity and uniformity.

Small Things Like These may be an anti-clerical story, although it does no more than glance at the suffering inflicted by the nuns’ laundry: roughly-cut hair, a nasty untreated stye in an eye, the girl from the coal-shed who cries “the way those unused to any type of kindness do” when they encounter it. However, the insistent Christmas backdrop marks his act not just as an act of Christian charity but, potentially, of Christian sacrifice. As he and the girl reach home, he feels “a world of trouble waiting for him behind the next door”. His moment of courage may, we gather, scupper the position and prospects of his wife and his daughters. This ending upends and contradicts the dénouement of iconic Christmas narratives — A Christmas Carol itself, or Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life — where bitter isolation ends in a blissful enfolding back into hearth, home and community.

Where Dickens re-integrates his misanthropic hero into family and society at Christmas, Keegan implies that the actual practice of Christian ethics might well undermine domestic peace. The reformed Scrooge, after all, becomes a “second father” to Tiny Tim and, to everyone else, “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew”. But the Bill whose rash altruism courts scandal may cease to be an adequate father even to the five children who depend on his stability and status. We have moved far from conventional pieties and back, perhaps, towards the home-wrecking shocks of the Gospels themselves; to the anti-social, anti-family outrage of Luke 14: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple”; and Matthew 19: “And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.”

Keegan sets us free to imagine a softer landing. The cagey, canny Eileen might suddenly melt into open-ended compassion for the delinquent stranger. More likely, the church authorities could arrange for the girl’s quick transfer, with Bill’s grudging compliance, to some slightly less torture-happy setting, and a discreet cover-up of the unfortunate incident. Yet Keegan’s words imply that his bid to save a life — as Mrs Wilson had saved his mother’s life and then his own — will mark not just a beginning but an ending: “The worst was yet to come, he knew”. The author has spoken of Bill Furlong as “a self-destructive man” and her story as “the account of his breaking down”. Breaking down, and breaking through.

The world, if not Ireland, still shelters many cruel convents, of various supernatural and ideological creeds. Many people justly want to tear them down but not always to bury the ideals that built them. The appeal of Keegan’s story reflects an age of institutional disgrace allied to ethical hunger. Millions may have turned their backs on church and convent — even in Ireland, census data show that by 2016 those following “no religion” had risen to 9.8%, a 40% jump in five years, while recent results for England and Wales have the non-religious on 37.2%, nearly snapping at the heels of professed Christians at 46.2%. In Britain, at least, there’s little new in that retreat from religious identity; the Victorians agonised endlessly about it. But modern Christmas stories that catch fire, as this one has, may tell you that what remains after religious observance is not the howling, disenchanted void that believers dread in a largely secular society. Rather, the receding “sea of faith” that Matthew Arnold lamented as early as 1851 has left a homeless feeling filled with nostalgia, thwarted idealism, and unfocused goodwill.

Keegan’s story deserves its likely “modern classic” tag not because it gives any glib answer for outcasts from faith: many readers find Bill’s gesture heroic; his creator seems to think it more like a social suicide. It does lend a resonant, almost mythic form to a shared thirst for righteous deeds that will set the living human essence of a value-system against its empty, formal and social, shells. And, where Christmas for so many brings fret and stress and obligation, Keegan frames it as a time of life-transforming free choice. As his revolutionary act looms, Bill thinks again about that “queer old man out slashing the thistles in the fog”, and “what he’d said about how the road would take him wherever he wanted to go”. Faith-full or faith-less, all can choose to take that road.

  1. Disclosure: I’m a trustee of the Orwell Foundation but took no part in the judging process.