Our next book is Karen Swan’s Last Summer, a page-turning historical novel about the evacuation of St Kilda. We look forward to seeing some or all of you on Monday 31st July, 6.30pm.
June Book Club notes
Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These was recommended to me repeatedly, but if I’m really honest it was chosen for the Book Club because of its brevity. It is a really short, but very powerful and beautifully written novella – and after the dense, textured writing of Adam Nicolson in May I thought we could all do with a break. What I didn’t realise was that I was taking the Book Club back to the magdalene laundries they had so disliked last year, and also to Christmas – in the middle of a heatwave. They were very nice about it.
Faber have produced this book beautifully, either as a small format hardback, or paperback with flaps. Claire Keegan is clearly someone her Publishers are prepared to put money behind, and no surprise. Small Things Like These won the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction, The Kerry Group Prize for Irish Novel of the Year, and was shortlisted for The Booker. The novel is set in a small Irish town in the mid-1980s, but it feels further back in time than that – whilst at the same time feeling very contemporary. We started by reminding ourselves that the last of these laundrys closed in 1996, as both Esther Freud and now Claire Keegan have pointed out. They are a recent and shocking phenomena which provides it’s own discomfort before you start.
Claire Keegan has less of the self-flagellation than we found in Freud although it feels that she is setting up a protestant ‘good way of living’, versus the catholics. Mrs Wilson, a protestant, owns a large house just outside town and takes in an unmarried mother and her small baby when her family throws them out. The baby is Bill Furlong, the hero of our tale. Or at least, we think he is the hero. It is Bill who realises that all is not well at the convent which dominates the town, and the book culminates with him taking in a young girl after finding her he repeatedly locked in the coal shed. Woven through the novel is an awareness of the stronghold which the Nuns have on society, largely through their education system. Families who don’t conform risk losing the ability to educate their children as well as the disapproval of a tightly knit society. We spent quite a lot of the evening discussing whether Bill had done the right thing in taking this girl in, or whether he put at risk the future of his own wife and five daughters. Was it a rational decision, or a gut reaction? The ending is amibiguous and we were unable to reach a conclusion as to whether it was a happy ending, or one filled with foreboding. We did note that the book is full of crows, usually a warning, and (post meeting note!) the cover illustration is from a painting by Peter Breugel the Elder called Hunters In The Snow and this too is filled with crows.
One reader found the virtuous Bill Furlong implausible as a character. Another pointed out that he is meant to be good, an Atticus Finch of a man. The clue is his name, Bill Furlong is the man who will always go the extra mile. One of our Book Clubbers had found an interview with Claire Keegan in which she said Bill was meant to be having a breakdown. We weren’t sure that she had given us enough information to understand that – or his implosion was so subtle it didn’t come across. What did come across was his questioning of society and looking back on his own life which reflected many of the broader themes in the novel (protestant vs catholic, individual vs society, family/mothers vs friends).
I believe that Claire Keegan is a masterful storyteller: that every word – every thing (jacket, punctuation) matters. I had a fun discussion after our meeting about the positioning of commas, which one of our customers found so annoying she could hardly read the book, whilst I found they contributed to the rhythm or meaning, and the Book Club all commented on the enjoyment they had got from the poeticism of Keegan’s writing. Some had read it slowly, some had read it twice. I went straight home after a brilliant evening and read it again – enjoying it even more the second time round.
What else had we been reading? Bookshop Chris told us she had read ‘The best book I’ve read in a very long time’! What was it? Demon Copperhead of course, by Barbara Kingsolver. Winner of The Pulitzer, The Women’s Prize and The Booker – I can’t wait to read it on holiday! Of similar stature was Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt. This was greeted with the general consensus that this brilliant but harrowing book is life changing. We were interested to learn that Cummins was initially pilloried for cultural appropriation (undeseverdly), but it seems that the book is now reviving as the fuss dies down.
Others were catching up on past Book Club favourites: Bonnie Garmus’ Lessons in Chemistry, Raynor Winn’s Landlines and Adam Nicolson’s Sea Room, Men of Honour and Gentry. Alan Bennett’s Uncommon Reader got a mention. If you haven’t read this, it is a short and very sweet, and currently on The Bookshop shelves! The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen came highly recommended – an easy read, but hard to describe quite why it’s so good. Similar in style to Annie Ernaux’s The Years it can/should be read as one volume and just gets better and better the deeper you get. Similarly hard to describe is The City and the City by China Mieville – a book which ‘defies genre’ but is definitely worth a go!