literary journalism

Lucy Caldwell’s ‘These Days’

Lucy Caldwell’s new novel is set during the Belfast Blitz: four German airstrikes in April and May 1941. The first, known as the Dockside Raid, saw strategic targets hit with few casualties. “Cognisant of how much worse it could have been, people are calling it, dismissively, or sometimes proudly, our wee raid,” writes Caldwell. It was shortly followed, however, by the Easter Raid, which led to some 900 death—the greatest loss of life in a single night outside of London.

A Belfast native now based in London, when Caldwell sits down to write, “all else falls away,” she has said. “It’s Belfast I’m writing from.” Her 2007 debut novel, Where They Were Missed, was set during the Troubles. It was followed by the 2011 Dylan Thomas Prize‑winning The Meeting Point, a story of Irish missionaries in Bahrain and All the Beggars Riding (2013), about a girl in London who discovers that her father had another family in Belfast. Caldwell’s most recent publications were short-story collections: Multitudes (2016) and Intimacies (2021), which includes the 2021 BBC National Short Story Award‑winning ‘All the People Were Mean and Bad’.

Her fourth novel, These Days is Caldwell’s first foray into historical fiction. The book is divided into three parts, named for the . It relays the wartime events primarily through the lives of the Bell family. Philip, a doctor, and his wife Florence have three children: 21-year-old Audrey works in the local tax office; 18-year-old Emma is a volunteer First Aider; their brother Paul is a young teen who dreams of enlisting. Their lives intersect with Maisie, a six-year-old girl who gets separated from her mother at a bomb shelter during the Easter raid.

The Bell women, from whose perspectives the story unfolds, struggle with internal desires at odds with their public personae. Audrey is recently engaged to Richard, also a doctor, but is unsure if she’s made the right choice. When she tries to picture married life with him, “the edges somehow slip away”. Emma, meanwhile, is discovering her sexuality through a clandestine affair with Sylvia, an older volunteer. A devoted wife by all appearances, Florence harbours fantasies of a young love lost in the Battle of the Somme.

The word ‘blitz’ comes from the German Blitzkrieg (‘lightning war’). Caldwell has clearly done her research: she told the Irish Times that she had interviewed people who had lived through the events, and it shows. The details are vivid: the terror at the sound of sirens, planes and bombs; the shock of returning home to find only a hole in the ground; the desperate search for missing loved ones in makeshift morgues. She also conveys the attempts to go about the business of living in the shadow of death and destruction: we see Florence optimising rations; Audrey planning her wedding; Maisie inconsolable after new Mary Janes are confiscated by the Customs on a train back from Dublin, and later packed up with a Belfast bap and her doll Polly as part of the exodus of evacuees.

The novel’s title comes from ‘Selva Oscura’, a poem by the Belfast-born poet Louis MacNeice, who pops up regularly in Caldwell’s work. “A life can be haunted by what it never was / If that were merely glimpsed…These days, though lost, will be all your days.” One of the characters faces tragedy and is haunted by what had been glimpsed, and Betty, an employee of the Bells, suffers devastating losses when her house is razed by a raid. (Half of the houses in Belfast were hit during the Blitz and 100,000 people left homeless, with working-class neighbourhoods bearing the brunt of the casualties)…

Read the full review online in the Irish Times

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