This fine novel by one of Northern Ireland’s most accomplished contemporary writers is set against the Belfast blitz, a series of attacks on the city by the Luftwaffe in 1941. Lucy Caldwell’s evocation of the violence and destruction is terrifying. Familiar avenues and buildings become a dystopia out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. “There are dogs who have survived their owners, congregating now in cowering, starving packs in the brickfields and the mill fields and the parks.”
Dread builds by day. Whole streets disappear by night. “The Germans will come again, everyone knows it. It’s just a question of when.” The citizens bargain with fate; perhaps the bombers will only attack the city’s factories and shipbuilding yards, not its residential neighbourhoods and acres of Victorian working-class housing. An exodus of evacuees is heading for the countryside: “Cars, carts, bicycles, perambulators, bath chairs … anything with wheels. The rag and bone men, the coke men, the auldfellas with their ice cream trikes.” And at the heart of the story are more personal disturbances, making the book something richer than a well-wrought historical novel.
These Days is a tale of two sisters, “flighty, impulsive, earnest Audrey” and “kind, stubborn, awkward Emma”. Audrey is engaged to be married to a doctor, Richard, an only child whose sexual reticence is becoming problematic, as is his plan for the couple to move in with his elderly parents after the wedding, since there’s no point in buying a house that might be blown up.
Meanwhile Emma is falling in love with Sylvia, a woman 11 years older, a radiant, life-loving character, then an absence so sharp that she feels like a presence. Like flames reflected in windows, in this novel love is real but elusive. No one’s ever quite sure where it’s coming from.
The great Belfast-born novelist Brian Moore volunteered as an air raid warden during the second world war and served during the Belfast blitz. The pristine clarity of his prose finds occasional echoes in Caldwell’s strong and unshowy writing, though her vivid voice is all her own. She doesn’t describe characters: with great deftness she incarnates them on the page. There are few metaphors or similes. Empathy lights the words.
The eye for detail is sharp and the insight into family, especially parenting, is striking. “There comes a time, she thought then, that’s the last time you’ll carry your children, and it comes without you knowing, without you marking it.”
These Days is a brilliantly shaped and organised novel. The narrative standpoint shifts but the change is never jarring. About a third of the way in, a remarkable chapter takes the story in a completely unexpected but inescapably logical direction, opening a room that the reader didn’t notice was there. Written in close third person from the sisters’ mother’s point of view, this sequence deepens the book with great subtlety, a sort of writerly tact. The quiet stoicism of these pages is so at odds with the heartbreak and loss they describe, the accommodation to a painfully imperfect world, that the effect is breathtakingly poignant.
Caldwell, winner of the 2021 BBC national short story award for All the People Were Mean and Bad, is also well known as a playwright. The drama of this novel is intense. Timing is exquisitely handled; the revelation of information is well paced. The thriller-ish elements meld well with scenes of domestic life in middle-class wartime Belfast, a place of “yesterday’s leek-and-potato pie” and “limp leaves of lettuce in the crisper with a lump of coal to revive them”. It’s a Northern Ireland not often seen in novels, but Caldwell mines its bleakness for beauty.
Those of us with family connections to Ulster will recognise the flint and saltiness of some of the dialogue. Local words and phrasings bring a pleasing music. “Guldered”. “Buck-eejit”. “I want to hear yous.” “They’d eat pails of willicks, hoking out the periwinkles from their shells.” “See me, missus? If I’d brains I’d be dangerous.” “D’ye think I came up the Lagan in a bubble?” Nothing conjures characters to life more powerfully than getting down how they speak, and Caldwell does this with cool confidence.
The surrealism of wartime violence drifts like smoke from the writing. In the city’s improvised morgues, workers use watering cans to sprinkle disinfectant. “Bulging hessian sacks” hold dismembered limbs. One house has had its entire front blown away. “A looking glass on the half-landing glinting blankly. The hallway glittered: the wallpaper, the walls, were stuck with daggers of glass.” Haunting such passages are the images of subsequent violence in the same city, ghosts from Belfast’s future. Caldwell does not point to them explicitly, but they hover in this impressive novel’s margins.