A big chunk of our lives is left to chance and if I say, Bill Furlong’s story is no different, it would be a lie. Serendipity or happenstance, however we like to label it, it cannot be denied that much of Bill’s childhood has been shaped and sculpted by fate. His mother could have ended up in one of the infamous Magdalen laundries of Ireland – institutions that under the guise of reforming ‘fallen women’ had incarcerated and brutalised them. Instead, she and Bill were taken in by Mrs Wilson, a Protestant widow for whom kindness didn’t come in short supply.
Despite his formative years being reliant on luck, I feel like his story arc ultimately boils down to one single line – “This road will take you wherever you want to go, son.” Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, starring Bill Furlong is a tale of how we take accountability of our lives’ trajectories, where we choose to go, and what we make of ourselves from the history lodged in our spines.
An emotional dichotomy
Bill has gobbled down all the opportunities that have come his way like they are the most delicious midnight snack. He is a coal merchant now, husband to Eileen and a father to five lovely and intelligent girls. Domesticity and middle-class respectability stand sentry at the horizon of his household. But amidst all the easy familiarity of his surroundings, he often finds himself adrift, blanketed by a kind of existential tizzy.
He doesn’t let the world invade much into his days. He takes pleasure in providing for his wife and daughters, focusing on life and its practicalities, and watching his family make mince pies. For him, stability is invited, necessary, and equivalent to any other prized possessions. Then, why does his personal existentialism index skyrockets at times? What is it about his beautiful, balmy life that pricks him from inside?
We can argue that the emotional dichotomy Bill feels is common to all of us, buzzing like a low hum in the background. These moments of lack of composure puncture our short, mundane lives. But these sentiments are not strong enough for us to hang our heart and purpose on, so we soldier on.
However, for Bill, these feelings often take precedence and the blues cannot be staved off for long. He tries to find comfort by lying, though only to himself. Sometimes, he wonders about his father’s identity and thinks (or hopes) somewhere in the perplexity of his past, lurks meaning. Other times, he sells coal and strives to convince himself that in his not so cold but hard reality, a series of payments must constitute this thing called... life.
A quiet heroism
Little does he know that the occasional Sturm and Drang he experiences is actually pushing him closer towards what will impart meaning to his narrative. As the novel progresses, Keegan reveals to her readers that Bill is actually meant for heroism, albeit the quiet kind.
One day, while delivering coal to the nuns Bill has a chance encounter with a girl who seems tortured and unwell. He leaves her in Mother Superior’s care, if we can call it that, and takes his leave for the day. But the pangs of guilt rear their head time and again and Bill cannot be indifferent to his indifference anymore.
The civil society in all its domestic glory often ends up curbing individual freedom. Even though a blissful family life is what Bill has worked so hard for, it offers him little wiggle room to exercise his free will. Being asked to live a life that is bound by rules and duties is equivalent to stagnation of sorts but Bill is having no more of it. At the end, Bill brings the destitute girl home, without consulting with his wife. He might get ostracised by his family and society for unthinkingly making a drastic decision, but his spontaneous act of kindness cannot be contained by social expectations and familial obligations.
Bill rebels against his domestic duties by nurturing his humanity and that in itself is no easy feat. Keegan assures us that if humanity goes down, at least it won’t go down because of our acquiescence. The readers just like Bill, don’t know what happens next or how Eileen reacts to her husband’s inconvenient magnanimity. But with her direct, unadorned prose, Keegan shows us that Bill’s days of tumbling through a fever dream are finally over. He has plunged into his true intentions so to surface once and for all. Instead of entering a state of perpetual mourning for everything he can’t or won’t be allowed to be, Bill reclaims all the selves that make him...him.
Bill rightfully follows the footsteps of Mrs Wilson who chose tenderness for him and his mother over sociocultural laws of acceptability. By practising tenderness towards the girl Bill also practises kindness towards himself.
Popular culture has conditioned us into believing that Christmas is all about groundbreaking miracles. But our every day tragedies require something small and not as ornamental – it needs a heroism that is not demanding of constant congratulations or performative in nature. Our mundane misfortunes deserve a Bill to help us emerge from ourselves and take a dip into peace. Oh, how wonderful, our lives would have been if only we weren’t just hyper-focusing on the extraordinary! Oh, how lovely it is to pray for small joys, small marvels, and ‘small things like these’, for others and ourselves.
Small Things Like These, Claire Keegan, Faber & Faber.