‘Small Things Like These’ is not the fluffy little Christmas tale of simple country folk the cover might lead you to believe it is. Yes, it’s set during a cold snowy Christmas in a small Irish town in 1985 but this isn’t an exercise in sugar-coated nostalgia. Rather it’s an opportunity to spend some time inside a man’s head at a point in the year when the tensions between the demands of the season and the reality of daily life have caused him to reflect on the kind of life he wants to lead and the sort of man he wants to be. These reflections become focused on a single, important decision when he stumbles across something fundamentally wrong that common sense says he should look away from if he knows what’s good for him and his family.
The story in this short book is obliquely told and dense with atmosphere and inference. I struggled with the first hald of this book, not because it was hard to read but because I had doubts about where it was going. The writing was powerfully evocative of the people and the period in terms of the small everyday acts that move life on. But, under the surface, I it seemed to me to be something else.
Bill Furlong, the man the story is about is not a typical man of his generation. He was born out of wedlock and raised in the Big House, but not as a son of that house. Through hard work and persistence, he has built a life for himself where he has a wife, five daughters, a house, a business, no debt and a good name. He is not unhappy or ungrateful but he is also not content.
This man, who his wife regards as soft-hearted because he’d give the change in his pocket to a homeless person met on the road. comes by chance into contact with the young woman in a Magdalen Laundry and becomes aware of how poorly they are treated, that they are effectively imprisoned and that everyone is choosing to look the other way.
About halfway through the book, it seemed to me that I was supposed to follow Furlong from ignorant innocence into informed outrage. Normally I would have done that. The Magdalen Laundries were terrible places and are a stain upon the characters of the societies that allowed them to flourish. Yet I found myself resisting the book because, beneath the careful evocation of normality and the description of a kind, rational everyman hero, I sensed, if not dishonesty, then inauthenticity. I felt that I was being set up by being presented with anachronistic observations disguised as contemporary reactions. I felt like a sheep being pushed into a shute to a plunge dip. It made me distrust what I was reading.
So I set the book aside and came back to it again today.
In the end, I was very happy with the story and how it was told. It didn’t turn into a polemic, demonising the Church and triggering a conflict with a prematurely-woke central character. Instead, it took me deeper and deeper inside Furlong’s head, as he searched for the source of his own lack of contentment. I thought this was beautifully done.
Furlong is shown as a bright man whose energy and thoughts are normally consumed by the demands of running a business and supporting his family but who has been thrown out his normal routine, given a little more time to reflect and haa found his head filled with questions about his own identity. Some of this is wrapped around the mystery of who his father was, some of it is about the way his values and expectations were set by the rich woman in whose household he was raised and by whom he was always treated faily and with kindness. Some of it is about his own expectations about women, He has five daughters of whom he is proud and on whose behalf he worries. He has a strong, pragmatic wife that he loves. He feels no lack from having no son.
As he reflects on these things, it becomes clear both to Furlong and to the reader that he is a man whose views are not mainstream but which would cause no harm unless there was a conflict with authority.
Of course, the conflict arises and Furlong must resolve his uncertainty about his own identity by the choices he makes.
One of the things that I liked about the book was that it didn’t degenerate into some kind ‘High Noon’ shootout between Furlong and Authority. It was less dramatic and more important than that. What clinched the story for me was that, in the end, Furlong’s identity, his choice about the kind of man he wanted to be, wasn’t revealed by what he choose to do but by what he could not let himself NOT do.
Set up or no, I’ve Bill Furlong in my head now and he and his questions are likely to be staying awhile.