Lucy Caldwell’s short story collection Multitudes occupies a unique place within the Northern Irish literary canon. It will doubtless be of interest to readers of contemporary fiction, the short story and women’s writing.
The stories focus on the theme of coming-of-age and have associations with Northern Ireland, but they are a steep departure from both Caldwell’s earlier fiction and previous Troubles writing by women. The conflict isn’t foregrounded but is barely there, in traces rather than as a narrative catalyst or backdrop. The stories take place at various times: broadly from the 1990s to the contemporary moment, and are dense in both nostalgic detail and an acute eye for the violence of adolescence and the complex process of negotiating a burgeoning sexuality.
Northern Irish fiction has often been squeamish about questions of sexuality, often using intimate encounters as metaphors for political life. Caldwell’s representation of sex has always deviated from these tired tropes, such as the “sexy widow” who initiates a young man or the cross-community affair which carries the weight of the conflict on its bare shoulders. Instead, she brings to the fore smaller and more complex moments.
Domestic concerns are so often left out of Northern Irish fiction, with women relegated to providing a safe haven or the next generation of combatants. This is to ignore the fact that the stuff of life often occurs in those moments outside of the traditional representation of politics. Caldwell carefully reproduces those moments we hold with us: the parents attending a gravely ill child, the first kisses, the warm encounters with old friends in departure lounges. These stories deal in the power of the encounter which is, quite frankly, where the power of short fiction lies. A look, a pause, lovemaking by the fire.
On a personal note, this collection is deeply important to me. As a fellow Northern Irish woman in England who was a teenager in the 1990s, this is the first fictional work to deal with that in-between existence. To grow up in that time, of ceasefires made and broken and made again, was to feel simultaneously the thrall of history but also that life could go on.
The mixture of bittersweet nostalgia and sheer respect for adolescent longing is a world away from the traditional representation of young life in Northern Ireland. The detail is meticulous: “Strawberry lip balm from The Body Shop or a Take That keyring from Athena” or “her breath warm and damp, reeking of Juicy Fruit and cheese and onion Tayto”. That is, of course, not to say that it will only be of interest to anyone from the North but rather that the universal experiences of shame, awkwardness and joy become even more pointed cast against the streets of East Belfast.
Cyprus Avenue is a beautifully optimistic story of reconciliation through cultural exchange. It explores the experience of a Northern Irish emigre whose trips home are grudging until a childhood acquaintance, Nirupam Choudry, brings back both shameful memories of racism in a Belfast playground but also gives her the possibility of appreciating home, particularly “the starlings that mass and swoop above the east of the city in the evenings”. The story of teenage lovebirds, Here We Are, is intricate and devastating. These stories, while evidently sharing the thematic preoccupations of intimacy, stand alone as powerful reminders that even in darker times, connection is not only possible but, often, all we have.
Dr Caroline Magennis is a lecturer in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literature at the University of Salford Manchester. 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 an interview by Laura Slattery, which will released as a podcast on September 30th