Claire Kilroy on Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell: a study in vulnerability

Caldwell finds the reservoirs hidden within herself and her characters. In trying to make sense of things, she illuminates the human spirit, revealing our frailties and strengths

Lucy Caldwell sustains the tension not through shock tactics, but by presenting us with situations that we all recognise. The first 10 stories are set in Belfast. This is not the Belfast we have grown accustomed to from news reports. The threats the characters face are not from terrorists, but from middle-class suburbia

Lucy Caldwell sustains the tension not through shock tactics, but by presenting us with situations that we all recognise. The first 10 stories are set in Belfast. This is not the Belfast we have grown accustomed to from news reports. The threats the characters face are not from terrorists, but from middle-class suburbia

 

It is the unguarded quality of the stories in Multitudes that makes them so very powerful. Caldwell sustains the tension not through shock tactics, but by presenting us with situations that we all recognise. The first 10 stories are set in Belfast. This is not the Belfast we have grown accustomed to from news reports. The threats the characters face are not from terrorists, but from middle-class suburbia – a young girl drinks too much in the company of a friend who is no friend at all, a schoolgirl has a crush on her opportunistic teacher, an art student experiments with drugs. All the characters court disaster without meaning to. You find yourself waiting for the axe to fall.

An event does not have to be newsworthy to be devastating. This is a collection about ordinary calamities, which is precisely why it hits home. The language is unadorned and colloquial. The voices are funny and sweet and vulnerable. Multitudes is, essentially, a study in vulnerability. Despite how low-key the settings are – kids going to music lessons, fast food outlets, the shops – I read Multitudes with my heart in my mouth, anxious for these people, particularly the young ones.

The last story, the title story, manages to be simultaneously raw and meditative. It is an account based on the author’s experience of her newborn baby’s brush with death. Medical details are interspersed with the practicalities of the situation. Parents are confronted with a new vocabulary, “Systolic, diastolic, puls/ox, stat.” They cart their duvets in a laundry bag up the street, save their baby’s nappies to be weighed. Caldwell is particularly powerful when evoking the parental trauma of seeing one’s child in pain. “We kiss his hands and feet and forehead and cry, both of us, and then we leave the room before the doctors begin, but we hear his cries the length of the corridor.”

“For the first time in my life,” Caldwell writes towards the end of this story, “fiction has failed me. I cannot imagine myself out of myself.” Instead, she documents the experience from within herself. “My panicking mind, plundering its reservoirs, throws up all sorts of flotsam and jetsam, disconnected images and half-phrases half-remembered, a desperate attempt to make sense of things.”

I love that word there: reservoirs. Caldwell finds the reservoirs hidden within herself and her characters. In attempting to make sense of things, she illuminates the human spirit, revealing our frailties and our strengths in the face of the trials all of us at some point undergo.

Claire Kilroy's latest novel is The Devil I Know. Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell (Faber, £12.99) is this month’s Irish Times Book Club selection, which we shall be exploring in a series of articles and essays. The series will culminate in a live event, a public reading by the author and an interview by Laura Slattery at the Irish Writers Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin, which will recorded and released as a podcast on September 30th

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