‘Children pulled their hoods up before facing out to school, while their mothers, so used now to ducking their heads and running to the clothes line, or hardly daring to hang anything out at all, had little faith in getting so much a shirt dry before evening. And then the nights came on and the frost took hold again, and blades of cold slid under doors and cut the knees off those who still knelt to say the rosary.’
Sometimes you read a book that is perfectly constructed and which doesn’t have a word to spare – this is one of those brilliant novels. Coming in at just over 100 pages, it was a perfect choice for a Friday night’s reclaiming of some reading time. It’s one of those books which you read in one sitting and then spend days after thinking about. It comes as no surprise that Keegan has won awards for her short stories – there’s a deft and intense knitting together of scenes in this book which reminds you of the immersive density of a short story.
In many ways, it’s one of the those ‘quiet’ tales, but they’re often the most dangerous as we know – what will happen in the small Irish town once the reader has left the book is left for us to guess, but there’s little doubt it’ll prove challenging for the family at the heart of the story. This is an Irish Catholic town in 1985 and the hold the church, and the local convent, has over the community is evident throughout. When Bill Furlong, a family man approaching something of a existential conflict, discovers a young woman locked in the convent’s coal shed one freezing winter day, it sets off a series of small actions and conversations which will have significant repercussions for all involved.
Keegan does domestic warmth brilliantly – the scenes of the family preparing for Christmas are just so perfect in their details (it is indeed the small things like these) but, like Bill, whose mind slips back to his own tough childhood, we’re aware that darker thoughts are being kept just at bay by the family routines. We must hope that the love this family has for each other can be enough against the outside world. A brilliant novel which will hopefully pop up on some shortlists this year.