And so, my annual reading marathon is under way and I have the first of this year’s Booker shortlist under my belt. At only 128 pages in length, Claire Keegan’s third novel (she has also written short stories) is the shortest ever to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. But make no mistake, it is not one to be read quickly. All the author’s skills as a short story writer are here, every word is necessary, the writing is crisp, almost sparse. And yet the subject matter is grave and heavy, too much perhaps for Keegan’s usual medium of a short story to bear. The sense of time and place is brilliantly executed. It is one of those books which you ‘feel’ but where you have no clue how the writer has achieved this!
It is 1985, just before Christmas, in a provincial town in Ireland. Bill Furlong, the local coal merchant, is making his deliveries. It is cold, there is snow on the ground, and this is pre-Celtic tiger. Bill is well aware that many of his customers are struggling to make ends meet and he reflects on his own good fortune, that he, happily married, a father to five daughters, lives in comfort. Bill’s start was not auspicious, however; he was the only son of a young single mother who became pregnant whilst working in the house of a wealthy local woman. Thanks to her kindness, his mother was allowed to remain in her employment, despite her ‘disgrace’, and both Bill and his mother were treated with sensitivity and respect.
Whilst delivering to the local convent, which sits just outside the town, Bill makes a discovery in the coal shed which affects him deeply. The convent is a bleak and isolated place and the nuns who live there, particularly the Mother Superior, do not have a reputation for warmth and kindness. Bill discovers a disturbed young woman, scantily clothed and barefoot in the coal shed. He returns her inside to the nuns, and is taken aback by their apparent lack of alarm that this woman should have been found in an outhouse on a winter’s day in such a state. The young woman mutters about ‘escape’, but she is shuffled away by the nuns and Bill is given a large tip for his trouble.
Bill’s discovery preys on him in the days that follow. The contrast of the woman’s situation with his own relatively comfortable one troubles him. It seems to be well-known in the town that young girls who fell pregnant out of wedlock were taken in by the nuns and Bill realises that no-one seems to question what happens to them thereafter. Given his own background, he reflects how his own mother might easily have been in that very same situation had she not, by pure good luck, found herself in the employment of a benevolent woman.
The story pre-dates the revelations of the Magdalen laundry scandal in Ireland, events which the country is still trying to come to terms with today given the instrumental role of the Church. It seems barely credible that this could have taken place so recently, in an age when we all consider ourselves so enlightened, tolerant and open-minded. Keegan’s novella shows us how blind and how complicit we can actually be. How easy it is to judge and how easy it is to remain silent when others are harshly judged.
This is a small but perfectly-formed story and I recommend it highly.