This review does not contain major spoilers

The fifth book from Irish author Claire Keegan, Small Things Like These effectively lures the reader into a false sense of tranquil security to expose the true horrors experienced by young women in a small town controlled by the Catholic church.

Set in a small Irish village in 1985, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, the book follows Irish coal merchant and father of four, Bill Furlong, as he prepares for the winter months ahead. The scenes are mundane and comforting, and the scenery is picturesque and quaint. Over the course of the novel, Keegan takes the reader on a journey alongside Furlong, as he slowly discovers that under the surface, his town is the very opposite of innocent and carefree.

The way in which Keegan depicts the plight of young women in ‘Magdalene laundries’ (known formally as mother-and-baby homes) is not through first-hand perspective, plunging the reader directly into the horrors for cheap shock value, but from an outsider’s point of view. This allows - even forces - the reader to register the true disturbance of these events. Not the events themselves, but rather, the refusal to acknowledge their existence, by mutual agreement of the town civilians. Furlong is frequently told by his neighbours, friends and wife to mind his business and keep his nose out of things that don’t affect him and ‘aren’t his problem’, lest there be consequences. And this mentality is framed as the very thing that allows these atrocities to continue happening, with no one willing to lift a finger to stop them. This perspective is one that rings true throughout human history and is incredibly relevant today.

The open-ended, cautiously optimistic ending of the book may catch readers off-guard, expecting more or confused as to what they are meant to take away. However, it is a vital component of the message Keegan wishes to convey: that even one person choosing to break their complicit silence, and doing the little they can to better the situation, can still make a difference.

The book is only 128 pages and can be polished off in a day or two, and copies are available at most local bookstores, physical and online. After all, nothing embodies the spirit of the season better than a poignant reminder of how atrocities committed against minorities can only persist thanks to mass bystander mentality and wilful ignorance.