In all Claire Keegan’s stories, there is a family. The protagonist changes – the father, the mother, a son or daughter. But this figure never stands very far out in front. Instead, the narrative gains its emotional resonance from the dynamics between characters. Within these families there is cruelty and violence, as well as deep springs of affection. There is much left unspoken. “You have nothing to say to your mother. If you started, you would say the wrong things and you wouldn’t want it to end that way,” we learn of the protagonist in The Parting Gift, from Keegan’s second collection, Walk the Blue Fields (2007). In The Ginger Rogers Sermon, from her first, Antarctica (1999), the protagonist describes the trivial secrets they all keep from one another: “That’s the way it is in our house, everybody knowing things but pretending they don’t.”
In her stories, there are the wide sky, the flowing river and the sea – we are often in County Wexford or County Wicklow in south-east Ireland, where Keegan grew up on a farm, the youngest of six children. And this landscape tells us things the characters cannot or do not know about the stories they inhabit. In her first collection, Antarctica, “Clouds smashed into each other in the sky”, anticipating the terrible encounter between a married protagonist and the stranger who will leave her tied to a bed. In Walk the Blue Fields, “A pale cloud was splitting in the April sky”, as the priest of the parish prepares to minister the marriage of the only woman he has ever loved.
Small Things Like These, Keegan’s latest short novel, shares its properties with the very best of her stories. Plunge pool-like, the narrative implies significant depth below its close, bounded surface. The protagonist here is the father, Bill Furlong, a coal merchant with a wife and five daughters. It is Christmas 1985, in the town of New Ross, County Wexford. What makes this book distinct from Keegan’s previous work is where the violence is situated in relation to the family.
The stories in Antarctica swing irrevocably towards brutality. They end in suicide, in rape, in families breaking apart. The language is stinging and immediate. In Walk the Blue Fields, which won the Edge Hill prize for short stories, Keegan pushes the violence back into the margins. The awful things that disturb her characters’ lives are only hinted at, having transpired some time before the present, or in the previous generation. It makes the stories more substantial and elemental than those in Antarctica, the slightest action taken by a character appearing not incidental but as if set in motion many years ago.
Like those in Walk the Blue Fields, the tragedy in Foster, first published in the New Yorker in 2010 and expanded into a short novel later that year, has already happened, its shape submerged just beneath the events of the narrative. It is a sublime, emotive story, the kind you emerge from as if having been away for a very long time: unsure, at first, how to continue with your own life. In many ways, it functions as a midpoint between Walk the Blue Fields and Small Things Like These, indicative of Keegan’s shift in mood towards a more tender, hopeful kind of fiction. Unlike her previous parental characters, Bill Furlong is pure of heart, at times exhibiting an almost Dickensian sentimentality. Keegan seems to direct the reader towards this association, describing how Furlong read A Christmas Carol as a child; he has requested David Copperfield for Christmas this year. Sympathetic and gentle, he watches his daughters grow with “a deep, private joy that these children were his own”. Though they have little, they have enough and feel endlessly fortunate. All adversity in the novel, then, occurs at some remove.
At the edge of town is a convent. Attached to it, a training school and laundry where young women live and work. There are all kinds of rumours about those in attendance – “girls of low character” or “common, unmarried girls”, who were hidden away after giving birth. The terrible conditions they are forced to live under are at last confirmed when Furlong discovers a girl locked away in the convent’s coal house, distressed, barely able to walk and asking to see her baby.
The tension comes from whether or not Furlong will act on his findings. In her note on the text, Keegan explains that the Magdalene laundries, where an estimated 30,000 Irish women were incarcerated between the 18th and 20th centuries, were “run and financed by the Catholic Church in concert with the Irish state”. For Furlong and his family, “it would be the easiest thing in the world to lose everything”. His sensitivity to the narrow boundary between happiness and ruin is accounted for within the text. Furlong’s mother bore him out of wedlock, when she was 16. She could easily have ended up in the laundry; if this was one of Keegan’s earlier stories, she might have. But, in this case, Furlong and his mother were taken in by a wealthy Protestant woman living just beyond New Ross.
Despite this relative lack of turbulence in Furlong’s past, Keegan provides him with a complex, nuanced inner life. It is this that prevents him, ultimately, from becoming a Dickensian stock figure. Though his life is a good one, Furlong cannot help but imagine alternative existences for himself. When he visits a neighbour’s house, “he stood for a moment taking in the peace of that plain room, letting a part of his mind turn loose to stray off and imagine what it might be like to live there, in that house, with her as his wife”. Why, then, does Small Things Like These not feel quite as devastating, as lasting, as Keegan’s previous work? Perhaps, for the first time in her writing, the lightness here has become too light – is kept too far away from the darkness that lurks at the other side of the town.
• Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan is published by Faber (£10). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.