If you’re a novelist, or aspiring novelist, you probably know how long a book “should” be: somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 words is ideal, though anything over 40,000 is considered a novel and anything just under falls into the novella category.
I don’t know how many words exactly Claire Keegan’s new novel (or, probably, novella) Small Things Like These is, but I loved every single one of those words. I’ve always appreciated a concise story. You get in and you get out. There’s a special category for books I’ve read in a single sitting. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides will always stick in mind for just this reason. The combination of time and intoxication. You can’t plan for it, though we readers never stop trying. I’m adding Small Things Like These to my list.
When I sat down with Small Things Like These, I knew very little about it except that my sales rep had told me it was good (above and beyond all the other books he was selling me that season). And if that’s the experience you want, you should stop reading right now and go pick up Claire Keegan’s book and I will not be offended. To be honest, not that much happens in the beginning of the book: it’s December 1985 in Ireland and Bill Furlong is going out about his days managing a business delivering coal around town and spending his evenings with his wife and daughters. And yet, it’s fascinating. The pages turned with ease; I wanted to know what was going to happen to Bill. Only the very best writers can make these daily travails so interesting.
And then Bill discovers something that puts him in a moral quandary, and he must decide what he’s going to do about it. Still, there is nothing flashy about any of this. The decision is made with quiet determination. Keegan manages to speak of a much larger societal ill by focusing in on the specific. The result is a book that filled me with hope. The ills of the world can feel overwhelming, and I don’t want to give away the ending of this book in any way, so I’ll just say, this book helped make it all feel less overwhelming.
Small Things Like These is also a terrific Christmas story. It’s not just set during the holiday season with all of its trappings, it pervades a certain spirit, one that can feel all too antiquated in our age of Black Fridays and whatever might be happening on TikTok, a spirit of generosity and an appreciation for the small things in life, which, it turns out, much like this book, might not be so small after all.
Hannah Harlow is owner of The Book Shop, an independent bookstore in Beverly Farms. Harlow writes biweekly recommendations for us. See more of what she recommends reading at thecricket.com.