Set in the Irish town of New Ross on the River Barrow in County Wexford, this novella is set in the run up to Christmas 1985, when the economy was drifting into recession, and “the times were raw”. The viewpoint is that of Bill Furlong, a moderately successful coal merchant and a hardworking, decent man who treats his employees well, and devotes his little free time to his possibly even more industrious wife and five daughters. He lives in a hidebound community, where conformity is maintained by the desire to avoid being the subject of the rampant grapevine of gossip, but even more by the fear of falling foul of the Catholic hierarchy of the local convent and church.
The crystal clear, plain prose leavened with a lyrical, quirky Irish turn of phrase (a puchaun being a male goat) reveals a remarkable amount in little more than a hundred pages. In the course of describing Furlong’s somewhat dull routine, we learn not only about the situation and values of his society, but also, through flashbacks, the details of a childhood which has invisibly set him apart and marked him for life. His mother was an unmarried domestic servant whose widowed Protestant employer, Mrs Wilson, kept retained her despite her pregnancy, ensuring that Furlong was supported sufficiently to have a chance of succeeding in life.
So when in the course of delivering coals to the convent he is confronted with positive evidence of the abuse suffered by the unmarried mothers employed at the laundry there, the moral dilemma he faces is harder for him to accept than for his pragmatic wife. At one point, she justifies the widespread philosophy of not looking after those in trouble who are “not one of ours”, by stating that Mrs Wilson was only able to choose to help his mother because she was “one of the few women on this earth who could (afford to) do as she pleased”.
Most novels involve dramas of pain, suffering, danger, and so on, which are generally resolved with an at least partly happy ending. Here, the build-up of tension, the sense of menace and risk is subtle, leading to Furlong’s final moral choice which forms the novella’s climax. Yet at first, I felt a little cheated by the abrupt, inconclusive ending, even thinking that the author had evaded the challenging task of writing about what happens next. On reflection, I decided that being left to speculate was effective, giving space to consider whether Furlong was right to take his decisive, unplanned action, what its implications both immediate and long-term might be, and how much he and others might suffer from his good intentions.
So, a novel attempt to explore an issue which has shamed both the Catholic church and the Irish government subtly both inspire us to take a stand against injustice and helps us to understand why so many of us decide not to do so.