Tag Archives: Novella

The Birds of the Air by Alice Thomas Ellis

While Christmas is often trumpeted as the season to be jolly, it can be an incredibly stressful time for many, throwing us together with relatives we rarely see and may well dislike, encouraging us to stuff ourselves with food and drink, and generally disturbing our usual routines. It’s a set-up that Alice Thomas Ellis cleverly explores in her excellent novel, The Birds in the Air, set in the fictional suburb of Innstead, a British hinterland between town and country.

As the book opens, the widowed Mrs Marsh is preparing for the forthcoming arrival of her extended family, trying to get things ready for the busy festive season. Her eldest daughter, Mary, is mourning the loss of her son, Robin, whose death hangs over the novel, intermittently alluded to but never fully explained. Mrs Marsh, on the other hand, is a stoical woman, very much of the ‘life must go on’ way of thinking, an approach that clashes directly with Mary’s lack of interest in day-to-day life. In truth, Mary wants to be left alone to nurse her grief, avoiding interactions with others, especially over Christmas. 

She wished she could lie in the garden and come up later with the crocuses. What a rest that would be. She had lost interest in the world. A world in which Robin could die was a foolish, trivial place where nothing made sense and she had no desire to linger. (p. 102)

Meanwhile, Mrs Marsh’s other daughter, the dutiful Barbara, is embroiled in her own problems, prompted by the realisation that her husband – the loathsome Sebastian – is having an affair. As Barbara observes the various guests at their pre-Christmas drinks party, she spies Sebastian flirting with the wife of one of his colleagues, thereby confirming what her son, Sam, has already discovered.

Barbara was trying to be brave. She was cold, and her hands shook. Her face was dry and wore a cutout smile, as stiff and unnatural as a cardboard party mask, and she hardly knew what she was saying to the mobile faces around her as they opened and shut to speak or eat. She had told herself repeatedly that everyone else in this room had had extra-marital affairs and no one had died of it. No one minded any more – it was acceptable, it was smart, it was only human, it was ‘sophisticated’. At the old-fashioned word she felt tears in her eyes. She had never even learned to be sophisticated and now that everything had passed beyond the very concept she was lost – a stranger among her friends. (p. 34)

Sam is the eldest of Sebastian and Barbara’s two children – a rebellious teenager ardently railing against any form of conformity and control. Quite a contrast then to his younger sister, Kate, a highly precocious little girl with a tendency to boast, much to Sam’s annoyance.

Ellis is particularly adept at capturing the various tensions as the family gathers together in the confines of Mrs Marsh’s house, a claustrophobic environment that adds to the pressure within. More friends and neighbours subsequently arrive, most notably Sebastian’s publisher, Hunter, whom Barbara covertly desires. In the wake of her discovery about Sebastian, Barbara works herself up into a feverish state, entertaining the fantasy that Hunter is planning to seduce her – a misapprehension that can only end badly. Meanwhile, Mary continues to isolate herself from the rest of the party as far as possible, while Mrs Marsh is rushed of her feet, silently cursing the numerous fallings of her family.

Shot through with flashes of wry insight and barbed humour, The Birds of the Air highlights the casual savageries and absurdities that often occur in family life. Ellis is an astute observer of the suburban middle-classes, skewering her characters’ foibles with sharpness and precision.

Sebastian’s father, the judge, was a complacent man with a high colour, the set mouth of one who has never been contradicted and a voice which sounded as though he was perpetually swallowing a mouthful of expensive whisky together with a few fox hairs. (p. 54)

While none of these characters are particularly likeable, they do feel very recognisable – a testament to the author’s insight into human behaviour. Ellis also has a keen eye for detail with a mordantly witty edge – a note that adds a slightly menacing touch to this inconspicuous setting.

There had been a moon last night – a bridal moon, veiled and ominous behind the running clouds – but now there were only snow flakes, hurrying down and gathering as mobs gathered to overthrow tyrants. (p. 104)

This is a novella steeped in loss, jealousy and betrayal, but Ellis’s humour prevents it from being maudlin, balancing the darkness with some lovely flashes of absurdity.

My first experience of this author’s fiction, but hopefully not my last. Fans of Elizabeth Berridge, Beryl Bainbridge and Barbara Pym would likely enjoy this very much!

My edition of The Birds of the Air was published by Penguin; personal copy.

The Road to the City by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Frances Frenaye)

The more I read the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, the more I like her – especially her short novellas such as Valentino and Sagittarius, recently reissued by NYRB Classics.

The Road to the City was Ginzburg’s debut, originally published under the pseudonym ‘Alessandra Tornimparte’ in the early 1940s. Ostensibly a story of a young woman’s desire to escape her village for a life in the city, the novella has much to say about various socioeconomic factors – how our destinies can be shaped by gender, social class, opportunities and education. It’s a simple, relatable story, told in Ginzburg’s characteristically unvarnished style.

The novella is narrated by seventeen-year-old Delia, who lives with her parents and three younger siblings in an unnamed Italian village an hour’s walk from the nearest city. There are multiple problems in the household – money is tight, affection is lacking, and life in general is mundane, a situation compounded by Delia’s father who is frequently tired and short-tempered. Consequently, Delia longs to escape her dreary surroundings by moving to the city, just as her elder sister, Azalea, decided to do at the roughly same age.  

They say that big families are happy, but I could never see anything particularly happy about ours. Azalea had married and gone away when she was seventeen, and my one ambition was to do likewise. (p. 3)

(Possibly a nod to the opening passage of Anna Karenina there, with its reference to happy – or should that be unhappy? – families.)

As a respite from this unhappy home life, Delia spends her days hanging out in the city, visiting Azalea and roaming the streets until it’s time to go home. Accompanying her on these trips are her younger brother, Giovanni, and their cousin, Nini – a sweet-natured boy who lives with Delia’s family, his own parents having died some years earlier.

Despite acting as a kind of role model for Delia, Azalea it seems is far from happy in her marriage. She has a lover (as does her older husband), and with a maid to take care of the children, there is little left to occupy her days. Nevertheless, Delia dreams of a similar life of leisure and luxury – glamorous clothes and a comfortable home befitting a city lifestyle.

While Nini seeks to better himself through reading and an apprenticeship at a local factory, Delia shuns the prospect of work, looking to marriage as her preferred route out of poverty. With this in mind, she courts Giulio, a stout, unattractive medical student from a higher social class who could be her ticket to a better life. But when Delia falls pregnant, tensions between the two families abound, especially when Giulio’s father tries to pay off Delia’s parents – an offer the latter firmly turn down.

A wedding is hastily agreed for a future date, allowing Giulio to complete his current round of studies. Meanwhile, Delia is packed off to a no-nonsense aunt who lives up in the mountains, hopefully avoiding the sort of scandal that a teenage pregnancy tends to attract.

As the novella unfolds, we follow Delia throughout her pregnancy, complete with the various romantic entanglements that ensue. In truth, Delia cares little for Giulio as a person; it is his social class and status she finds appealing, primarily as a gateway to a more exciting life in the city. Nevertheless, while marriage to Giulio represents a convenient escape route for Delia, there are potential downsides too. The last thing she wants to happen is to end up like Giulio’s mother, tied to the home all day while her looks fade and wither.

…and as I undressed for bed I thought of how Giulio was always kissing me there in the woods, but he hadn’t yet asked me to marry him. I was in a hurry to get married, but I wanted to enjoy myself afterward too. And perhaps with Giulio I shouldn’t be so free. He might treat me the way his father treated his mother, shutting her up on the pretext that a woman’s place was in the home, until she had turned into an old hag who sat all day long by the window, waiting for someone to go by. (p. 16)

Nini, on the other hand, is a more natural fit as a partner, declaring his love for Delia despite her selfish character. With time on her hands to reflect and ponder the future, Delia misses the carefree days she used to idle away in the city, a realisation that taps into some recurring themes in Ginzburg’s work – specifically, our inability to recapture the past and failure to appreciate the true value of things until they’ve gone.

The Road to the City is a rather tragic tale, lucidly conveyed in Ginzburg’s pithy, candid style. There is something raw and unadorned about the writing, an approach that fits well with the brutal reality of life for young women in Delia’s position – poor, uneducated women with little choice but to marry and raise children in a patriarchal society that favours men. While Delia is very prickly as a character – lazy, selfish, unreliable and insolent are descriptions that immediately spring to mind – it is hard not to feel some sympathy for her as she waits out her pregnancy in the hills. Ultimately though, the novella offers a stark commentary on society, highlighting the constraints placed on women and the consequences these can lead to for all those involved.

The Road to the City is published by Daunt Books; personal copy.

Foster by Claire Keegan

When I look back over the last three months, Claire Keegan’s beautiful novella Small Things Like These stands out as one of my favourite recent reads. Set in a small town in County Wexford in the run-up to Christmas 1985, the book tells the story of Bill Furlong, a thoroughly decent, hardworking man who stays true to his personal values when he sees worrying signs of abuse at the local convent. It’s a deeply affecting story about standing up to the Catholic Church and doing right by those around you, even if it puts your family’s security at risk.

Clocking in at under 100 pages, Foster is an earlier novella in a similar style, drawing on themes of family, kindness and compassion from a child’s point of view. It’s a gorgeous book, just as exquisitely written as Small Things Like These, confirming Keegan as one of my favourite Irish writers alongside the wonderful Maeve Brennan.

As Foster opens, a young girl from Clonegal, County Carlow is being driven to County Wexford by her father, Dan. There she will stay with relatives, an aunt and uncle she doesn’t know, with no mention of a return date or the nature of the arrangement. The girl’s mother, Mary, is expecting a baby, and with a large family to support, the couple have chosen to take the girl to Wexford to ease the burden at home.

Almost immediately the girl detects some differences in her new environment with John and Edna Kinsella. Like the girl’s parents, the Kinsellas are country folk, living and working on a farm – and yet the atmosphere feels more relaxed here than at home, less rushed with more space to think and breathe.

With my mother it is all work: us, the butter-making, the dinners, the washing up and getting up and getting ready for Mass and school, weaning calves, and hiring men to plough and harrow the fields, stretching the money and setting the alarm. But this is a different type of house. Here there is room, and time to think. There may even be money to spare. (p. 12)

The story is narrated by the young girl herself (whose name we never learn), a viewpoint that gives the novella a beautiful sense of intimacy, perfectly capturing the uncertainty of not knowing how the future will pan out.

And so the days pass. I keep waiting for something to happen, for the ease I feel to end – to wake in a wet bed, to make some blunder, some big gaffe, to break something – but each day follows on much like the one before. (p. 37)

With no children of their own at home, the Kinsellas treat the girl with love and compassion, demonstrating their values through simple acts of kindness. As John works the land, preparing the crops for harvest, the girl helps Edna around the house, lighter work than she has been used to at home. Here she learns how to prepare fruit from the garden for jam and tarts, the simple rhythms of domestic life. There’s time for some fun too, the occasional trip to town to buy clothes and sweets – when John gives the girl a pound note to spend, her eyes light up. We also learn a little more about the Kinsellas themselves, how past sorrows have almost certainly shaped their affection for the girl, whom they treat as one of their own.

As the summer draws to a close, the sense of uncertainty about the future heightens, sharpening a little the atmosphere in the house. I won’t reveal anything more about how the story plays out, other than to say that Keegan really lands the ending – it’s an unforgettable scene.

Keegan writes beautifully about the gentle rhythms of country life. There is a purity and simplicity to her prose, a luminosity that builds through the book.

All through the walk, the wind blows hard and soft and hard again through the tall, flowering hedges, the high trees. In the fields, the combines are out cutting the wheat, the barley and oats, saving the corn, leaving behind long rows of straw. We meet men on tractors, going in different directions, pulling balers to the fields, and trailers full of grain to the co-op. Birds swoop down, brazen, eating the fallen seed off the middle of the road. (p. 49)

Her style is uncluttered and spare – every phrase has just the right weight and meaning, not a word out of place. She also leaves plenty of space in the story, allowing the reader to make their own connections between little hints and observations to fill in the gaps.

Occasional references to external events seem to locate the story in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, and yet there is a timeless quality to it, reflecting the Ireland of old. Keegan also nails the atmosphere of a small, close-knit community to perfection, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business and gossip is rife. In this scene, a nosy acquaintance of Edna’s has just come back from a funeral with much to report.

She takes off her cardigan and sits down and starts talking about the wake: who was there, the type of sandwiches that were made, the queen cakes, the corpse who was lying up crooked in the coffin and hadn’t even been shaved properly, how they had plastic rosary beads for him, the poor fucker. (pp. 57–58)

In summary then, Foster is a sublime novella, a masterclass in the ‘less-is-more’ school of writing – a poignant story, beautifully told. Another very strong contender for my annual reading highlights.

Foster is published by Faber & Faber; personal copy.

The #1954Club – some reading recommendations for next week

On Monday 18th April, Karen and Simon will be kicking off the #1954Club, a week-long celebration of books first published in 1954. Their ‘Club’ weeks are always great fun, and I’m looking forward to seeing all the various tweets, reviews and recommendations flying around the web during the event.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given my fondness for fiction from the 1940s and ‘50s, I’ve reviewed various 1954 books over the past few years. So if you’re thinking of taking part in the Club, here are some of my faves.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

There is something distinctly English about the world that Barbara Comyns portrays here, a surreal eccentricity that could only be found within the England of old. Set in 1911, three years before the advent of the First World War, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead has all the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel: enchanting, innocent children caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, typically with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-fact delivery that belies the horrors within. Another strikingly creative work from one of Britain’s most singular writers – a darkly humorous novel of great brilliance and originality with an allegorical nod to the First World War.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francois Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd)

A quintessential summer read, Bonjour Tristesse is an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with others people’s emotions, all set against the background of the glamorous French Riviera. Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending the summer on the Cote d’Azur with her father, Raymond, and his latest lover, Elsa. Everything is leisurely and glorious until another person arrives on the scene, the glamorous and sophisticated Anne, whose very presence threatens to disrupt Cécile’s idyllic life with her father.  Sagan’s novella is an utterly compelling read with a dramatic denouement. My review is based on Heather Lloyd’s 2013 translation, but if you’re thinking of reading this one. I would strongly recommend Irene Ash’s 1955 version – it’s more vivacious than the Lloyd, a style that perfectly complements the story’s palpable atmosphere and mood.

The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith

This very compelling noir sees Highsmith in familiar territory, exploring themes of guilt, obsession and the possibility that an ordinary, everyday man might resort to murder if pushed far enough. In this instance, Highsmith is particularly strong on exploring the point at which idle curiosity tips over into an unhealthy obsession, signalling the point of no return. The novel revolves around Walter Stackhouse, a frazzled, thirty-year-old lawyer whose life is being made a misery by his wife, Clara, a successful yet neurotic real estate agent. There is an inherent dichotomy in the central protagonist’s personality, which is both believable and fascinating to observe. Even though Walter knows his actions are truly reckless, he goes ahead with them anyway, irrespective of the tragic consequences. It’s an intriguing novel, ideal for lovers of dark, well-crafted fiction with a psychological edge.

Les Belles Amours by Louise de Vilmorin (tr. Francis Wyndham)

This charming novel revolves around the respective fortunes of three central characters: the handsome roué, Monsieur Zaraguirre; the young libertine Louis Duville; and the alluring woman who manages to capture both of their hearts. (Interestingly, we never learn the young woman’s name as her identity throughout the novel is characterised by her attachment to each of the men in turn.) While de Vilmorin’s story is set in the 1920s, there is a timeless quality to it, so much so that it would be easy to imagine it playing out in the late 19th century, complete with the relevant social mores of the day. In short, Les Belles Amours is a beautifully constructed story of intrigues, infidelity, and the complexities of the heart – by turns elegant, artful and poignant. I suspect it’s currently out of print, but secondhand copies of the Capuchin Classics edition are still available.

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

Murdoch’s debut novel is a subtly clever blend of the picaresque and the philosophical, set within the bohemian milieu of London and Paris in the early 1950s. Our narrator is Jake Donaghue, an impoverished hack writer who scrapes a living by translating mediocre French novels into English when in need of some ready cash. When Jack must find a new place to live – ably accompanied by his accommodating assistant, Finn – the quest sets off a sequence of misadventures, chance encounters and close shaves, all of which shape Jack’s outlook on life in subtly different ways. Along the way, the action takes in various scuffles, the theft of a manuscript, a break-in, a kidnap, and a spontaneous night-time dip in the Thames. On one level, it’s all tremendous fun, but there’s a sense of depth to the story too. A witty, engaging story and a thoroughly enjoyable read – my first Murdoch, but hopefully not my last.

Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac (tr. Geoffrey Sainsbury)

First published in France in 1954, Vertigo (originally titled D’entre les morts, meaning Among the Dead) is the source novel for Hitchcock’s 1958 film of the same name. Even if you’ve seen the movie, the book is well worth reading. It’s darker than Hitchcock’s adaptation – in particular, the characterisation feels stronger and more nuanced here. Lawyer and former police officer Roger Flavières is haunted by a traumatic incident from his past linked to a fear of heights. As the narrative unfolds, echoes of former experiences reverberate in the protagonist’s mind, trapping him in a kind of nightmare and feverish obsession. This highly compelling novella would suit readers who enjoy psychological mysteries, particularly those that blur the margins between reality and the imaginary.  

Hester Lilly by Elizabeth Taylor

Taylor’s first collection of short fiction includes seventeen stories of varying length – ranging from brief sketches of two of three pages to the novella-sized titular tale that opens the collection. There are some brilliant stories here, up there with some of the best vignettes from Taylor’s longer works. The opening piece in particular encapsulates many of this author’s key trademarks: her ability to create nuanced characters with real emotional depth; her acute observations of the subtleties of human interactions; and her capacity to elicit the reader’s sympathy for difficult individuals despite their inherent flaws. Where this collection really excels is in its depiction of domestic stories: the palpable tensions between semi-estranged partners; the unspoken agonies of lifeless marriages; and the painful attempts of a mother to outdo her neighbour. An excellent collection of stories from one of my very favourite authors.

Do let me know your thoughts on these books if you’ve read any of them. Or maybe you have plans of your own for the week – if so, I’d be interested to hear.

Hopefully I’ll be posting a new ‘1954’ review for the Club to tie in with the event, other commitments permitting!

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au

Based in Melbourne, Australia, Jessica Au is a new writer to me – clearly an exciting talent on the strength of this book alone. Her beautiful, meditative novella, Cold Enough for Snow, won the inaugural Novel Prize, which seeks to reward novels written in the English language that ‘explore and expand the possibilities of the form, and are innovative and imaginative in style’. This biennial prize has been set up by three independent publishers working in collaboration: Fitzcarraldo Editions, who publish Au’s book in the UK and Ireland, Giramondo (covering Australasia), and New Directions (for North America).

At first sight, the story being conveyed in Cold Enough for Snow seems relatively straightforward – a mother and her adult daughter reconnect to spend some time together in Japan. Nevertheless, the narrative is wonderfully slippery – cool and clear on the surface, yet harbouring fascinating hidden depths, a combination that gives the book a spectral, enigmatic quality, cutting deep into the soul.

Mother and daughter – both unnamed – travel from separate locations to meet in Tokyo, where the daughter has made all the arrangements for the visit. Interestingly, the novel is narrated by the daughter, so we never hear from the mother directly. Instead, everything we are shown is filtered through the daughter’s perspective, which gives the narrative a particular slant that becomes increasingly apparent as the story unfolds.

Right from the start, there is a strong sense of separateness and isolation surrounding these figures. The trip seems important to the daughter (less so to the mother), although we are never explicitly told why. The two have clearly drifted apart over the years – the daughter now living in Australia with her partner, Laurie, a sculptor, the mother having emigrated from her childhood home in Hong Kong to Australia many years before. Moreover, the mother has recently moved house in Australia to a location close to her other daughter (the narrator’s married sister) and her family. Partly for this reason, there is an air of distance between the narrator and her mother as they walk through the Tokyo streets, hinting perhaps at the gaps that have evolved over time.

All the while, my mother stayed close to me, as if she felt that the flow of the crowd was a current, and that if we were separated, we would not be able to make our way back to each other, but continue to drift further and further apart. (p. 9)

In Tokyo, the pair walk along the city’s canal paths, visit various museums that the daughter has carefully chosen, and share simple meals in bars and restaurants. However, while the daughter always appears present and engaged, fervently hoping her mother is enjoying these experiences, the latter often seems quiet or absent from the moments in question.

Threaded through the trip are various memories from the past, the narrative moving back and forth in time – a technique that adds to the dreamlike quality of the novel as it crosses the boundaries of time, blurring the margins between past and present. We learn of the narrator’s love of literature, especially Greek myths, a passion fuelled by an influential teacher the woman met during her youth. Further memories emerge of the mother’s family in Hong Kong, the close relatives that have long since passed away. A particularly resonant passage explores the sister’s memories of a trip to Hong Kong at the age of six or seven, sparked by the death of the girls’ maternal grandfather. The sense of disorientation experienced by the narrator’s sister is vividly conveyed, a time of intense strangeness and confusion in an unfamiliar world.

Au’s novel excels in conveying the slippery nature of memory, how our perceptions of an occurrence can evolve over time – sometimes fading to a feeling or impression, other times morphing into something else entirely, altered perhaps by our own wishes and desires.

But, witnessing her daughter, it was like remembering the details of a dream she once had, that perhaps, at some point in her life, there had been things worth screaming and crying over, some deeper truth, or even horror, that everyone around you perpetually denied, such that it only made you angrier and angrier. Yet now, my sister could not harness that feeling, only the memory of it, or not even that, but something even more remote. (p. 23)

Au’s prose style is gorgeous – meditative, hypnotic and perfectly poised, accentuating the beauty of the characters’ surroundings in Japan. There is some beautiful descriptive writing here, ranging from the artworks the mother and daughter see during their gallery visits to the environment of the natural world.

Through the sheets of rain, the landscape looked almost like a screen painting that we had seen in one of the old houses. It had been made up of several panels, and yet the artist had used the brush only minimally, making a few careful lines on the paper. Some were strong and definite, while others bled and faded, giving the impression of vapour. And yet, when you looked, you saw something: mountains, dissolution, form and colour running forever downwards. (p. 84)

As the novella unfolds, it becomes increasingly enigmatic, prompting the reader to question the true nature of the situation they see before them. Much of the novel’s power stems from points left unsaid, a technique that gives the narrative a wonderful sense of space, enabling the reader to bring their own interpretation to the story. (In her review, Janakay likened elements of the book to A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray, a very apt comparison.)

There are several additional elements that I would love to discuss here, but to say any more might spoil the experience for other readers. So instead, I’ll finish with a final quote, one that seems to capture something of the novel’s allusive nature. This is a slim, evocative novella exploring profoundly moving themes: the elusive nature of memories; the distance between the generations; and our desires to relive or reshape the past, to mould it into something slightly different, drawing perhaps on our regrets and wishes.

…and then I said that in many of the old paintings, one could discover what was called a pentimento, an earlier layer of something that the artist has chosen to paint over. Sometimes, these were as small as an object, or a colour that had been changed, but other times they could be as significant as a whole figure, an animal, or a piece of furniture. I said that in this way too, writing was just like painting. It was only in this way that one could go back and change the past, to make things not as they were, but as we wished they had been, or rather as we saw it. (pp. 92–93)

One final thought. There are some really interesting resonances here with Celine Sciamma’s latest film, Petite Maman, which explores loneliness, isolation and loss through a distanced mother-daughter relationship, albeit a somewhat different one. These two pieces of art – Au’s novel and Sciamma’s movie – share an elegant simplicity and depth of feeling. They make a fascinating, thought-provoking pair, soulmates perhaps in terms of style and themes.

Reading Ireland – My Favourite Books by Irish Women Writers

As some of you may know, March is Reading Ireland Month (#ReadingIreland22), co-hosted by Cathy at the 746Books blog and Niall/Raging Fluff. It’s a month-long celebration of Irish books and culture from both sides of the border – you can find out more about it here.

Over the past few years, I’ve reviewed quite a few books by Irish writers; and given that 8th March is International Women’s Day, I thought I would share some of my favourites by women. (Hopefully these might give you some ideas on what to read if you’re thinking of participating.)

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen (1927)

Bowen’s striking debut novel is a story of unsuitable attachments – more specifically, the subtle power dynamics at play among the members of a very privileged set, cast against the backdrop of the Italian Riviera. In many respects, the novel revolves around Sydney Warren, a somewhat remote yet spirited young woman in her early twenties, and the individuals she meets during her break. In some instances, the characters are gravitating towards one another for convenience and perhaps a vague kind of protection or social acceptability, while in others, there are more underhand motives at play.

It all feels incredibly accomplished for a debut, full of little observations on human nature and the social codes that dictate people’s behaviour (there are some wonderful details on hotel etiquette here). If you like Edith Wharton’s ‘society’ novels, The Hotel could well be for you.

The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan (from the early 1950s to the early ‘70s)

A stunning collection of stories, all set in the same modest terraced house in the Ranelagh suburb of Dublin in the 20th century. The collection opens with a series of seven short autobiographical pieces that offer brief glimpses of Brennan’s childhood, a broadly happy time despite the political turbulence of the early 1920s. Then we move on to a sequence of stories featuring Rose and Hubert Derdon, a middle-aged couple whose marriage is characterised by an intense emotional distance. Here we see two desperately unhappy individuals locked in a kind of stasis, unable or incapable of reaching out to one another and accepting their respective flaws. Lastly, the third and final section explores another couple with difficulties in their marriage, Martin and Delia Bagot. In contrast to the previous pieces, there is a little more hope here as the Bagots’ relationship is punctuated by occasional moments of brightness.

What sets this collection apart from many others is the cumulative sense of disconnection conveyed through the stories, the layers of insight and meaning that gradually reveal themselves with each additional piece.

Tea at Four O’Clock by Janet McNeill (1956)

A brilliant but desperately sad story of familial obligations, ulterior motives and long-held guilt, set within the middle-class Protestant community of Belfast in the 1950s. The novel’s protagonist is Laura Percival – a rather timid spinster in her forties – who we first meet on the afternoon of a family funeral. The deceased is Laura’s elder sister, Mildred, a woman whose presence still looms large over Marathon (the Percivals’ residence), despite her recent death. This is a novel that delves into the past as developments force Laura to confront a period of her life she has long since buried – more specifically, a series of circumstances that led her to stay at Marathon when the possibility of freedom was so tantalisingly within reach.

A powerful, character-driven novel that focuses on the psychology and underlying motives of different individuals tied together by familial or social bonds, however tenuous. Fans of Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Bowen would likely appreciate this.

Academy Street by Mary Costello (2014)

This gorgeous, deeply-affecting novel focuses on the life of Tess Lohan, a girl born and raised on a farm in rural Ireland. The novel opens in the mid-1940s with the death of Tess’ mother – a loss that sets the tone for the decades which follow. Academy Street is a poignant book, the deeply-moving story of a quiet life that plays out firstly in 1950s Ireland and then in 1960s New York. The overall tone is achingly melancholy, but there are moments of intense beauty amidst the solitude and heartache.

One of the most impressive things about this novel is the intensity of feeling Costello brings to Tess’ story. The prose is spare and controlled, but the reader feels a sense of closeness to Tess, as if we have near-complete access to her thoughts and emotions. A beautifully written book from one of my favourite contemporary writers.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (2021)

A superb novella set in New Ross, a town in the southeast of Ireland, in the raw-cold days of the run-up to Christmas 1985. Central to the story is Bill Furlong, a hardworking coal and timber merchant who tries to help his clients where he can – dropping off bags of logs to loyal customers, even when they can’t afford to pay. One day, while delivering coal to the local Convent, Furlong sees something genuinely alarming – a sign that proves hard for him to ignore, despite his wife’s reservations about speaking out.

It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking book about the importance of staying true to your values – of doing right by those around you, even if it puts your family’s security and aspirations at risk. Keegan’s prose is simple, pared-back and unadorned, a style that seems fitting given the nature of the story. Nothing feels superfluous here – every word has just the right weight and meaning.

These Days by Lucy Caldwell (2022)

This deeply-moving novel takes as its focal point a series of attacks – the Dockside Raid, the Easter Raid and the Fireside Raids – that took place in Belfast during WW2. Using these devastating real-life events as a springboard, Caldwell has created a really beautiful novel here – an engrossing, evocative portrayal of the Belfast Blitz, seen through the eyes of the Bells, a fictional middle-class family. Caldwell excels in capturing so many aspects of the raids, both physical and emotional. From the fear as people wait for the bombings to start, to the panic of searching for the missing and those who may have perished, to depicting the crushing damage to homes in vivid, unflinching detail. Moreover, she makes us care about her characters, investing in their respective hopes and dreams, concerns and anxieties – and it’s the depth of this emotional investment that makes this portrayal of the Belfast Blitz so powerful and affecting.

In summary, this is a beautiful, lyrical novel – a deeply moving tribute to the resilience of the Belfast people who lost and endured so much during the dark days of the Blitz. 

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read any of them. Hopefully, I’ll be able to fit in another couple of titles during March, including one by a woman. And if you have any favourites by Irish women writers, please feel free to mention them alongside other comments below – personal recommendations are always welcome.

The House of Dolls by Barbara Comyns  

I have written before about my love of Barbara Comyns and the eccentric worlds she portrays in her novels, perhaps most notably in Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (1954). First published in 1989, The House of Dolls shares the same offbeat sensibility as Comyns’ earlier work, blending darkly comic humour and surreal imagery with the realities of day-to-day life. As in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, there are several emotions on display here, ranging from optimism and hope to endurance and stoicism to despondency and poignancy. It’s a wonderfully funny book, one of my favourites by this supremely talented writer!

The novel is set in a Kensington boarding house during the swinging ‘60s. Amy Doll, a widow in her mid-thirties, has four female boarders – all middle-aged or elderly, all divorced or widowed and cast adrift from any immediate family. Low on funds and in need of support to pay the rent, the ladies have turned their hands to a little light prostitution, fashioning a sort of ‘lounge’ for elderly gentlemen in Amy’s gold and crimson drawing-room. As Amy explains to her friend Doris…

‘…I thought it would make a nice sitting-room for my ladies; but you should see what they have done with it. It looks real wicked somehow, and they’ve added to the mirrors and there’s a sort of bar, all done up with bamboo, where they serve drinks, at a profit, of course; only, there’s always one who drinks behind the others’ backs and that causes trouble. It’s all very worrying; but there it is. There’s little I can do to alter things: they’re too strong for me, especially that Berti.’ (p. 5)

Central to this operation are Berti and Evelyn – both stick-thin and well past their prime. With her dyed red hair and skin-tight clothes, Berti is the more formidable of the pair, a rather nosy, bawdy woman who proves difficult for Amy to control. Almost as troublesome is Evelyn – ‘a poor man’s version of Berti’ with her blue rinse and slightly tragic air. The two women are forever arguing – mostly over petty jealousies, frequently fuelled by drink. Completing the quartet are Augustina (commonly known as the Señora), easily the most sensible of the group, and Ivy, a timid middle-aged woman who finds herself roped into her housemates’ enterprise, much to her discomfort.

Berti and Evelyn have a small number of clients and sometimes look for new ones in the local coffee bars and pubs. One of the things Comyns does so well here is to lace her descriptions of the ladies’ activities with a seam of mordant humour, giving the novel a slightly surreal or unhinged tone that really adds to its appeal.

Berti poured herself the first drink of the evening, an unusually small one. She was expecting a new client that evening, a middle-aged Greek she had met in the underground. He had just buried his wife, he said, and was feeling lonely. She felt nervous; he was so dark and his melancholy eyes were like dates. He told her his wife had died in the street. A street accident? Murdered? He did not say. (p. 66)

Meanwhile, Ivy – who hates her job in the haberdashery and wool shop – is longing for someone to take care of her. Preferably her boyfriend, Hugh – a respectable dentist from Putney – who knows nothing of the ladies’ prostitution racket. As soon as his divorce comes through, Hugh plans to marry Ivy and move to Canada to set up a new practice, much to his fiancée’s relief.

To be released from Mulberry Grove, Berti, Evelyn and the chiropodist and, above all, from the widower who came on Wednesdays. Never to see them again. No more women clamouring for knitting wool, no more listening to the manageress talking about her home knitting machine and her fallen arches. She would be thousands of miles away, married to her wonderful Hugh and her disagreeable past behind her. (p. 60)

While her tenants entertain their gentleman callers upstairs, Amy tries to shield her fourteen-year-old daughter, Hetty, from the debauchery of the lounge, turning up the radio to drown out any noise. It’s a difficult age for Hetty, who has little in common with the other girls at her school, preferring animals and comics to boyfriends and bands. In search of friendship and solace, Hetty skips school a couple of days a week, spending her time instead with a gentle, childlike man named Glover, making mosaics out of broken china and glass. Thankfully, there is nothing inappropriate or sexual about this relationship; rather, the pair work together peacefully in the garden of a derelict house, creating beautiful pictures from these shattered remnants – a lovely contrast to the unsavoury goings-on at Hetty’s home.

Comyns also adds a lovely storyline for Amy into the mix – a blossoming romance with a policeman named Harry, who enjoys gardening and DIY. When Harry first calls at the house, Amy is mistakenly convinced that he is spying on her, trying to gather evidence on the ‘brothel’ upstairs. In time though, Harry becomes a trusted friend and partner, helping Amy to stand firm against the ladies and their bawdy evening parties.

As the lounge collective begins to break up, with Ivy and the Señora leaving Kensington, Berti and Evelyn must find another place to live – especially as Amy intends to marry Harry. At first, the old ladies’ prospects look bleak. With their meagre allowances and little hope of continuing the usual services, Berti and Evelyn have barely any money to speak of – a situation not helped by their disastrous forays into the world of work. While Evelyn gets drunk during a babysitting assignment, Berti falls foul when she takes a job as a cook, lasting a couple of days in the face of a demanding employer. But then, just when the situation seems desperate, Berti’s luck turns, opening new opportunities for the two elderly dames.

The House of Dolls is a charming, wickedly funny novel with some serious themes at its heart – how sometimes our hands are forced by unfortunate circumstances, e.g. loneliness, poverty, abandonment or adversity. Tonally and thematically, I’m reminded of some of Muriel Spark’s novels (Memento Mori, perhaps) and the early works of William Trevor. There’s something sad and unhinged about it, in the mould of Trevor’s The Boarding-House and The Love Department.

I’ll finish with a final quote that captures something of the novel’s tone and the nature of the two ladies, Berti and Evelyn. They have developed a new hobby – looking up funerals in the newspapers and gate-crashing the most promising ones, passing themselves off as distant relatives of the deceased. As their new landlady observes…

‘…They have an air of breeding; but there is something distinctly odd about them, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. […] They have charming voices. It’s just their oddness that makes me a little nervous. Oh, yes, and they’d been to a funeral at the cemetery and I heard the one with blue hair whisper to the other, “Handy for funerals, isn’t it?” Perhaps they’re body-snatchers.’ (p. 145)

The House of Dolls is published by Turnpike Books (another for #ReadIndies). My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy – and to Ali, who happened to gift me a copy at almost exactly the same time!

Family and Borghesia by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Beryl Stockman)

Family and Borghesia are two separate but related novellas by the Italian neorealist writer Natalia Ginzburg, reissued together in this lovely edition from NYRB Classics. Both stories deal with the messy business of family relationships – how couples come together and subsequently break apart, often creating shock waves across their wider family networks. Viewed together, they illustrate how painful day-to-day life can be, how difficult it is to defend ourselves against unhappiness and detachment.

She remembered saying that there were three things in life you should always refuse: hypocrisy, resignation and unhappiness. But it was impossible to shield yourself from those three things. Life was full of them and there was no holding them back. (p. 110)

Central to Family are Carmine, a forty-year-old architect (financially stable but somewhat disaffected by life), and Ivana, a thirty-seven-year-old translator searching for a full-time job. Their stories unfold as a revisitation of the past – a key theme in Ginzburg’s work – taking us back to the time when these two were lovers, despite their differences in background and class. (Carmine’s parents are poor, his mother barely literate, while Ivana’s family are from the educated middle-classes, her father a successful mathematician.)

We follow Carmine and Ivana through the ups and downs of their relationship. They have a child, who subsequently dies at a very young age; their relationship falls apart, and Carmine marries Ninetta, who likes Ivana at first but later turns against her (to a certain extent). Meanwhile, Ivana has a number of lovers, one of whom provides her with a child (Angelica), which Ivana raises on her own. She also falls into a long-term relationship with a doctor who suffers from depression – a condition that culminates in him taking his own life after losing the will to survive.

By now, Carmine spends most of his evenings with Ivana and her daughter, Angelica, neglecting his wife Ninetta and their seven-year-old son, Dadò. In effect, Carmine and Ninetta’s marriage has fallen apart, leaving Carmine to ruminate on times past – not only the chances squandered but the more mundane day-to-day activities too. Central to the novella is our inability to recapture these moments – how we don’t quite appreciate the value of what we’ve got until it’s gone. 

Borghesia focuses on a different family, equally complex and troubled as the group featured above. Ilaria is a widow who acquires a sequence of cats in an attempt to stave off the loneliness she experiences day-to-day. Like the characters in Family, Ilaria is part of a complicated family network. She receives financial support from her brother-in-law, Pietro, who lives in the flat above, while her eighteen-year-old daughter, Aurora, shares the flat next door with her boyfriend, Aldo. Aurora, a student, and Aldo, who has dropped out of college to drift along aimlessly, are also being supported by Pietro – possibly as a kind of debt to his deceased brother. (The brothers owned a valuable piece of land together, which Pietro refused to sell when Ilaria’s husband was still alive.)

Once again, this is a story of couples coming together and falling apart as we follow Pietro, Aldo and Aurora – and their respective affairs – over time.  Caught in the middle of all this is Ilaria, who is broken by the death of her first cat.

To have lost him was a slight thing. It was a poor sort of pain. But, all of a sudden, she was discovering that even poor sorts of pain are acute and merciless, and quickly take their place in that immense, vague area of general unhappiness. (p. 76)

Both novellas were written and published in 1977. As such, they share a sense of fluidity around the nature of family, a relaxation of the strict views towards marriage that were prevalent in Italian society in the 1940s and ‘50s. Nevertheless, these more liberal domestic arrangements bring their own sources of tension, often leading to sadness and restlessness as relationships evolve.

One of the things Ginzburg does so well here is to create richly imagined characters through simple, beautifully-crafted prose. Her descriptions and clear and vivid, frequently drawing on details to bring these individuals to life. (Evelina is Ninetta’s mother from the first novella, Family.)

The whole room was dominated by Evelina’s large head and gauzy blue hair, her tall, commanding, flourishing figure and her smile, which, like Ninetta, she offered as if it were a precious jewel. But behind it, there was also a sort of satisfaction at being so tall and straight and exuberant in her old age. Her presence was like a monument to elegant old age, healthy, shrewdly wealthy and wise. Carmine suddenly felt he detested her. He detested the two people with her as well. It seemed horrible to him that mixed up in all this hate was Dadò. (pp. 29-30)

Ginzburg can be funny too, even when dealing with dark subjects like depression, death and infidelity. Her descriptions often start in a neutral tone, then veer into humour, darkness or both, highlighting some of the absurdities we have to deal with as we amble along.

Winter passed once again and spring came, and Pietro was still planning to get married but kept putting it off because Domitilla had to study, or practise for a horse-show or play in a folk-group. (p. 91)

Nevertheless, at heart, these novellas highlight the painful nature of family life – what binds us together as individuals often forces us apart. Several of these characters seem lost or purposeless, drifting through their lives, navigating the things that cause us pain – infidelity, abandonment, illness, suicide, premature death, loneliness and depression. And yet, Ginzburg manages to maintain a lightness of touch in these stories, highlighting the inherent emotions without a hint of sentimentality, exploring the relationships with insight and depth.

In short, Family and Borghesia would make an excellent introduction to Ginzburg’s work, like a pair of Italian neorealist films in the style of Roberto Rossellini or Vittorio De Sica.

(I read this book for Karen and Lizzy’s Read Indies event, now extended to mid-March.)

Assembly by Natasha Brown

This is a superb debut novel, one of the very best I’ve read in recent years. Structurally innovative and arresting, Assembly has recently been shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize. It was also shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize – this award seeks to recognise fiction that ‘breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form’.

As a novel, it has much to say about so many vital sociopolitical issues – including toxic masculinity, the shallowness of workplace diversity programmes, the pressure for people of colour to assimilate into a predominantly white society, and the social constructs that perpetuate Britain’s colonial history. I found it urgent and illuminating – a remarkable insight into how it must feel to be a young black woman in the superficially liberal sectors of society today.

Brown’s novella – a tight 100 pages in length – is narrated by an unnamed black British woman, working in a London-based financial firm. She is smart, successful and politically savvy – certainly as far as corporate dynamics are concerned. Her work colleagues are predominantly male. Male, pale and stale. Tightly packed rows of suited men ‘talking and sweating and burping and coughing and existing – packed in sleeve to sleeve’.

On a daily basis, there are various humiliations for the narrator to deal with, ranging from general sexual innuendos to more explicit attacks on her race. In one particularly powerful passage, she conveys a colleague’s resentment over her recent promotion – a progression he puts down to the narrator’s colour and the company’s concessions on diversity quotas rather than any professional achievements or capabilities.

He sniffs air in. Cheeks puffed, lips tight and nostrils twitching, he obstinately avoids my eyes until finally, he says:

It’s so much easier for you blacks and Hispanics.

He says that’s why I was chosen, over qualified guys like him. He says he’s not opposed to diversity. He just wants fairness, okay?

Okay? he says again.

Okay?

I am still a few sentences behind… (pp. 55-56)

The novella is written as a series of vignettes – beautifully expressed in elegant, pared-back prose that cuts through the consciousness like a knife. Several passages touch on the constant pressure the narrator feels to assimilate into society, to blend into the appropriate corporate and social environments she occupies. As a young black woman, she must work harder (than her white colleagues) to prove herself and her place. But she must also be inconspicuous in certain respects, largely to avoid others feeling uncomfortable in her presence. In other words, there is an implicit need for her to abide by the following unspoken codes – keep quiet; don’t rock the boat; blend in; say the right things to survive.  

Be the best. Work harder, work smarter. Exceed every expectation. But also, be invisible, imperceptible. Don’t make anyone uncomfortable. Don’t inconvenience. Exist in the negative only, the space around. Do not insert yourself into the main narrative. Go unnoticed. Become the air.

Open your eyes. (p. 58)

As part of her role, the narrator is also required to give talks to students on a regular basis. She is the company’s face at schools, universities, recruitment fairs and women’s panels. ‘The diversity must be seen’, and her role is to endorse it, whether she believes in it or not.

Other vignettes articulate the racial abuse she receives from random strangers, typically verbal slurs that serve to accentuate a sense of ‘us and them’. Unsurprisingly, Brown conveys a palpable note of anger in some of these passages, a feeling of rage at the ramifications of Britain’s colonial heritage and its lasting impact on society today.

This troubling aspect of our history is further explored through the narrator’s affluent white boyfriend who comes from a privileged background. As the son of a wealthy family, the boyfriend has his own legacy to uphold – that of old money, a sizeable country estate and a comfortable existence, passed down through the generations for its members to enjoy. As the narrative unfolds, the narrator must attend an anniversary party at her boyfriend’s childhood home – an occasion that will demand a performance of sorts to maintain the social niceties, however unpalatable they may be.

I will be watched, that’s the price of admission. They’ll want to see my reactions to their abundance: polite restraint, concealed outrage, and a base, desirous hunger beneath. I must play this part with a veneer of new-millennial-money coolness; serving up savage witticisms alongside the hors d’oeuvres. It’s a fictionalization of who I am, but my engagement transforms the fiction into truth. My thoughts, my ideas – even my identity – can only exist as a response to the partygoers’ words and actions. Articulated along the perimeter of their form. Reinforcing both their selfhood, and its centrality to mine. How else can they be certain of who they are, and what they aren’t? Delineation requires a sharp black outline. (pp. 68–69)

Brown is particularly incisive on well-meaning liberals and their reactions towards people of colour. The narrator knows that she is tolerated by her boyfriend’s parents, who probably hope that their son is just going through ‘a phase’. There is a subtlety to their responses too, with the boyfriend’s mother acting more coolly in this regard than the father. Interestingly, Brown also highlights some of the knock-on effects of this mixed-race relationship, particularly for the narrator. By virtue of her white partner, the narrator has become a little more tolerable to her work colleagues. In some respects, the boyfriend’s acceptance of her colour encourages theirs. In return, she provides her boyfriend with a ‘certain liberal credibility’, a partial counterweight to his post-colonial heritage. Once again, these observations are underscored with a sense of frustration with our seemingly liberal politics. Why shouldn’t the narrator be accepted on her own terms rather than those of partner?

Several of the vignettes are written in present tense, giving the narrative an immediacy that feels urgent and real. Some have the feel of autofiction or excepts from essays, highlighting how colonial constructs (and their supporting structures) serve to perpetuate racism and prejudice – for instance, the erasure of Britain’s non-war-related activities from the collective memory, especially the version of British history taught in schools.

How can we engage, discuss, even think through a post-colonial lens, when there’s no shared base of knowledge? When even the simplest accounting of events – as preserved in the country’s own archives – wobbles suspect as tin-foil-hat conspiracies in the minds of its educated citizens? (p. 87)

Alongside the elements covered above, there is another thread running through the narrative, something that ultimately provides the narrator with a choice. She is diagnosed with cancer – aggressive enough to be life-threatening if not treated urgently.

As the narrator expresses a weariness with the pressure to assimilate into society, Brown draws a parallel between the cancer rampaging through this young woman’s body and the malignancy of the broader system itself – the racism the narrator must deal with as a consequence of this country’s history. In effect, the cancer gives her another option, something different from merely surviving – because survival requires complicity, a perpetuation of the system that constrains the narrator, such is the unrelenting nature of the prejudices she must face. 

Generations of sacrifice; hard work and harder living. So much suffered, so much forfeited, so much – for this opportunity. For my life. And I’ve tried, tried living up to it. But after years of struggling, fighting against the current, I’m ready to slow my arms. Stop kicking. Breathe the water in. I’m exhausted. (p. 13)

Assembly is a remarkably assured book – eloquent, arresting and beautifully crafted. A wake-up call to society and a catalyst for action. An excellent choice for book group and solo readers alike. 

Assembly is published by Hamish Hamilton; personal copy.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan – some personal reflections

Back in the 1970s, when I was a young girl, my mother and I would travel to Ireland every summer to visit my grandfather and his family. Sometimes we stayed at his house in Cork, but more often than not, we ended up with my mum’s older sister, B, in the city’s suburbs. Aunt B and her husband, K, had two daughters – both slightly older than me, but close enough in age for us to play together quite happily.

Their house was in an unusual location – built into the side of a steep hill, so precipitous and sheer that it was practically a cliff. There was no back garden – all you could see from the rear of the house was the cliff face, literally within touching distance of the building. The kitchen and back rooms were dark and oppressive, with virtually no natural light all day. My lovely grandfather disliked the house quite strongly and rarely set foot in it. Luckily, we rarely visited in winter; but even in summer, when the days were long and the sun was bright, it was a strange, shadowy place – a stark contrast to the warmth of the family within.

Heightening this ominous atmosphere was a Convent – a large gothic monstrosity, both physically and spiritually, aptly situated further up the hill. The Convent included an orphanage, an asylum, possibly even a prison – we never knew for sure. Naturally, when you’re young, all sorts of rumours swirl around, especially when a place seems so mysterious and foreboding. All I really understood at the time was that ‘bad people’ were sent there, girls who had committed sins or disgraced their families. On the odd occasion that my cousins were naughty, Aunt B – a formidable woman when crossed – would shout, “If you don’t behave yourselves, the nuns will come and get you” or words to that effect – the nuns being those from the Convent on the hill. Naturally, this threat was enough to nip any misbehaviour in the bud. The Convent was seen as a sinister place, and my cousins were afraid of it.

Years later, when I was well into my twenties, I heard that the Convent had closed down. By then, my cousins had moved away, having married and started families of their own. The old family home on the hill had been sold, and Aunt B was living with her eldest daughter in a different part of Cork. The Convent, it transpired, had been a Magdalene Laundry, one of several such institutions run and financed by the Catholic Church with the support of the Irish State. For some two hundred years, several thousand girls and women were incarcerated in these institutions, typically against their will, forced to work in brutal conditions for little or no pay. Many were unmarried mothers, disowned or rejected by their families, their babies subsequently adopted, sold or even killed – hidden away and suppressed by the powerful Catholic Church. Other women or girls were simply locked up for being ‘morally wayward’, a term that covered a multitude of so-called sins.

I mention this here because of its relevance to Small Things Like These, a profoundly affecting novella by the Irish writer Claire Keegan. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking book about the importance of staying true to your values – of doing right by those around you, even if it puts your family’s security and aspirations at risk.

Keegan’s story is set in New Ross, a town in the southeast of Ireland, in the raw-cold days of the run-up to Christmas. The year is 1985, and times are hard for many of the town’s residents; the nearby shipyard has closed, local businesses are issuing redundancies, and many people are struggling to pay their bills.

Bill Furlong, a hardworking coal and timber merchant, tries to help his clients where he can, dropping off bags of logs to loyal customers, even when they can’t afford to pay., Furlong knows he is lucky, having worked his way up in the business over the years. He and his wife Eileen have five daughters – good, hardworking girls, all still in school, quietly going about their days. As a family, they take comfort from the small, significant things in life, the simple pleasures and personal achievements that constitute their world.

Nevertheless, despite his relatively secure position, Furlong feels a sense of restlessness, an uneasiness about his life and the things he sees around him. He worries about his work, finding it difficult to switch off and relax. The long days stretch out ahead of him, prompting various reflections on the relevance of his life. Apart from supporting Eileen and the girls, what is it all for? Where is the meaning and purpose, his reason for being alive?

What was it all for? Furlong wondered. The work and the constant worry. Getting up in the dark and going to the yard, making the deliveries, one after another, the whole day long, then coming home in the dark and trying to wash the black off himself and sitting into a dinner at the table and falling asleep before waking in the dark to meet a version of the same thing, yet again. Might things never change or develop into something else, or new? (p. 32)

From a moral standpoint, Furlong has been strongly shaped by his childhood, having grown up in Mrs Wilson’s house, a few miles outside New Ross. At sixteen, Furlong’s mother, Sarah, fell pregnant while working in service for Mrs Wilson, a wealthy Protestant widow. While Sarah’s family wanted nothing to do with her, Mrs Wilson adopted a more compassionate approach, allowing Sarah to keep her job and the baby – quite an unusual response at a time when many employers would have rejected an unmarried mother, distancing themselves from the inevitable scandal and shame. As a consequence, Furlong knows he owes everything to Mrs Wilson – a kind, open-minded woman who encouraged him with his reading, treating him modestly yet fairly, despite his illegitimacy. 

One day, in the run-up to Christmas 1985, Furlong reaches a turning point in his life. While delivering coal to the local Convent, he sees something genuinely alarming – clear signs of child abuse that prove hard for him to ignore. Naturally, the nuns are frightened that Furlong may prove troublesome to them, should he decide to take the matter further; so they try to pass the incident off as child’s play – an unfortunate misunderstanding when it’s clearly anything but.

The Mother Superior makes it known to Furlong that she has the ear of the adjacent school, the only decent one for girls in the local area. Two of Furlong’s daughters are currently studying at St Margaret’s, with the other three due to follow in time, should places be made available to them. Implicit in this discussion is the suggestion of blackmail, that Furlong should keep quiet if he cares about his girls’ education – a feeling only strengthened by the generous Christmas bonus (or hush money) that is slipped into his Christmas card.

When Furlong mentions his concerns about the Convent to Eileen, she urges him to ignore it. Their lives are stable and secure, so why get involved with something that doesn’t concern them, especially if it puts their children’s futures at risk? Mrs Kehoe, the landlady at the local pub, also warns of the Convent’s network of influence, reminding Furlong that the ‘nuns have a finger in every pie’, so to speak – their power extends far and wide, further than one might realise at first sight.

‘They belong to different orders,’ she [Mrs Kehoe] went on, ‘but believe you me, they’re all the one. You can’t side against one without damaging your chances with the other.’ (p. 95)

As Christmas approaches, Furlong must wrestle with his conscience, weighing the stability of his family against the urge to intervene…

Keegan has written a beautiful, deeply resonant novella here, one that highlights the complicity that existed within the Catholic Church and surrounding community for several decades. It takes great courage to speak out against such a powerful institution, to stand up and take action when it would be so much *easier* to a blind eye – a spirit that Furlong embodies in the face of hostility and uncertainty. There is a particular poignancy to the story too, set as it is in the week before Christmas, the season of peace on earth and goodwill to all – a time of kindness, generosity and compassion. Keegan’s prose is simple, pared-back and unadorned, a style that seems fitting given the nature of the story. Nothing feels superfluous here – every word has just the right weight and meaning.

As far as I’m aware, no members of my mother’s family were sent to the Magdalene Laundries or similar mother-and-baby homes, but sadly they knew of others who were affected more directly. Fittingly, Keegan has dedicated the book to the women and children who suffered in these places over the years, the last of which was closed in 1996. For the interested, you can find more about the Laundries here, following an official inquiry in 2013.

If you’re still with me, thank you for reading this piece – it’s clearly somewhat personal. I love this novella for some many things: its simplicity and beauty, the spirit it embodies, and the memories it evokes. Ultimately, though, it’s a story about how important it is for us to speak out and take action when faced with cruelty and complicity, a valuable reminder for us all.

Small Things Like These is published by Faber & Faber; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a copy.