Reviewer: Linda Hepworth
Publisher: Faber & Faber 21st October 2021
ISBN: 978-0571-468686 HB
Bill Furlong was born in 1946, to a mother who’d been just sixteen years old and working as a domestic when she became pregnant. When her pregnancy became known, her Catholic family disowned her but her Protestant employer, childless widow Mrs Wilson, whose husband had been killed in the war, took her in, providing her and her baby with a permanent home. Although Bill grew up facing the inevitable ugly name-calling and taunts from his contemporaries and others in the community, his connection with the ‘big house’ and Mrs Wilson offered some protection. His mother died when he was twelve but Mrs Wilson, and her live-in farmhand, Ned, continued to provide a stable home for him. It was an upbringing which instilled a strong work ethic but which also personified kindness, non-judgmental attitudes and the importance of being prepared to do the morally right thing, whatever the external pressures to do otherwise. When he left school he started work at the local coal yard, gaining a reputation as a reliable employee; when he became engaged to Eileen, Mrs Wilson gave him a few thousand pounds to enable him to buy the business.
The story opens in late November 1985. Bill and Elaine now have five daughters, all of whom are doing well at school, with the two eldest already attending the prestigious local Catholic High School and the parents hoping that the others will eventually be offered places at the over-subscribed school. However, this is by no means guaranteed as success is dependent on the approval of the Mother Superior at the local convent so the family must be careful to remain in her good graces.
The weeks leading up to Christmas mark the busiest time of the year for Bill’s coal and timber business. He is working long hours each day to ensure that all orders will be delivered and that none of his customers will be without fuel in the cold weather. Although the family isn’t rich, Bill is well aware that they are much better off than many others in the community and is always prepared to offer whatever help he can to those less fortunate, although his altruism often causes tension between him and his wife, who believes that many of these people ‘bring the hardship on themselves’. Nevertheless, he can never forget the support and kindness of his own benefactor, ever conscious that without her his life would have been very different.
He knows that the Good Shepherd nuns run a well-regarded laundry business at the convent, as well as a training school for girls. Although aware of the rumours which abound in the village about who the girls are and what goes on at the school, he isn’t one to believe unsubstantiated gossip. However, when making a delivery of coal to the convent he comes across a young girl who begs him to rescue her and although he is initially reassured by the explanation offered by the Mother Superior, and her apparently caring response to the girl, he cannot forget what he has seen. Not only could that have been the fate for his own mother had Mrs Wilson not taken her in, but his imagination takes him to the even darker thought of his own daughters being similarly held against their will. Although his wife warns him that he shouldn’t rock the boat and upset the nuns, that they need to look after themselves and ‘stay on the right side of people’, Bill knows that whatever it costs him, he must do something, he simply cannot look the other way.
It would be hard to overstate how exquisitely written this profoundly affecting novella is. There is a gentle rhythm to Clare Keegan’s spare, elegant prose which was apparent from the start and which I found almost hypnotic in the way it immediately drew me into the story. The nuanced detail which underpinned her portrayal of Bill as an honest, hardworking and compassionate man, a person with a deeply-rooted moral code who wanted to do his best not only for his family but also for those in less fortunate circumstances, was truly exceptional. I very quickly started to feel that I was party to his innermost thoughts as he reflected on his past: never unappreciative, given the circumstances of his birth, of how fortunate he’d been and yet still troubled by some aspects of it, especially the fact that he didn’t know who his father was. His inner restlessness and his determination to do what was morally right, whatever the personal cost, were so brilliantly evoked that there were moments when I felt I wanted to protect him from the dilemmas he was struggling with.
Although Bill was the most comprehensively developed character, I was impressed by how the author managed to portray all her characters in such a vivid, immediately recognisable way – each one seemed to leap from the page. Equally convincing were her descriptions of the landscape and her portrayal of a community controlled by the power of the Catholic Church, with people fearful of challenging the status quo, and feeling disturbed by anyone who dared to. Weaving through the darker and more thought-provoking aspects of the author’s storytelling are some delightful, tender vignettes of everyday life in the Furlong family and interactions between the parents and their daughters, particularly as they make preparations for Christmas. Her description of how making the cake was a joint effort, with each member of the family contributing something to the preparations, was so precisely detailed that I could almost the smell the ingredients and feel the warmth of the kitchen.
In this novella’s one hundred-and ten-pages Clare Keegan’s use of rich, lyrical and economical prose provides a masterclass in demonstrating how less really can feel like more when each well-chosen word and sentence in the narrative contributes to the developing story. I can think of many full-length novels which fall far short of the psychological depth which is integral to this truly unforgettable story. It is one which explores the best and the worst of human behaviour but, as Bill Furlong reminds us, we are all capable of choosing to do the morally right thing.