Back in October, the Belfast-born writer Lucy Caldwell won the BBC National Short Story Award with All the People Were Mean and Bad, a story of motherhood, chance encounters and the randomness of life. It’s a superb piece – probably the standout in Caldwell’s remarkable collection of stories, Intimacies, published by Faber earlier this year – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.
All eleven stories in Intimacies are concerned with motherhood, mostly featuring young mothers with babies and/or toddlers, while a few focus on pregnancy and mothers to be. Consequently, the collection has a feeling of interconnectedness, a sense of synergy or cumulative effect as the reader moves from one piece to the next.
Caldwell writes so insightfully about the fears young mothers experience when caring for small children. With a rare blend of honesty and compassion, she shows us those heart-stopping moments of anxiety that ambush her protagonists as they go about their days. Moreover, there is an intensity to the emotions that Caldwell captures in her stories, a depth of feeling that seems utterly authentic and true.
Some of the most memorable stories rest on ‘what if’ or ‘what might have been’ moments, opening up the possibility of multiple outcomes for these characters – glimpses perhaps of alternative futures, some of which seem exciting, while others appear terrifying or weighed down by guilt.
In Like This, a busy mother, with a toddler and baby in tow, stops at a café for a brief respite. When the toddler wants to use the toilet – too large for the baby buggy to squeeze into – a friendly lady at a nearby table offers to watch the young woman’s baby. While the mother hurries her toddler along in the cubicle, the foolishness of her actions hits hard. How could she have left the most ‘helpless, precious thing’ she owns with a complete stranger, albeit another mother? Of course, this other woman said she has children of her own; but even so, what sort of mother would take the risk?
When the young woman emerges from the toilet, she is relieved to see that the buggy is still there; the stranger and the baby, however, are nowhere to be seen. In the minutes that follow, Caldwell’s protagonist begins a panic-stricken search for her child as the horror of a future blighted by tragedy plays out in her mind…
The fear and devastation of loss are also detectable in The Children, a fascinating story where a breastfeeding mother finds a lump in her breast. It could be nothing; but then again, it could be something – it’s so hard to tell. As such, we follow the young mother as the lump is investigated, with Caldwell skilfully switching between her protagonist’s medical appointments and work-related preoccupations as she awaits the results. The young mother is researching a story on the social reformer and author Caroline Norton, who found herself trapped in an abusive marriage and assailed by traumatic dreams. Reading Norton’s letters, the protagonist is reminded of her own anxiety dreams and how much she stands to lose, should the lump turn out to be cancer.
Since they were born, I’ve dreamed of losing my babies too. I dream that I’ve left my daughter in a Left Luggage unit and there are hundreds of dully gleaming lockers and I don’t have a key. […] I am dying, and I’m scared, and they tell me to keep calm and hold the hands that reach out for me, and I do, and feel myself pulled from my body. A moment’s relief, then the agony of realising I will never hold my children again. (p. 92)
Fears of a different kind assail the protagonist in Mayday, in which a female student is using some pills procured on the internet to terminate her unwanted pregnancy. (The story is set in Northern Ireland where accessible termination services are still to be commissioned following the legalisation of abortion in October 2019.) As she waits for the medication to work, the young woman experiences a mix of terror, sadness and relief – an overriding belief that she is making the right decision at this point in her life, despite the inherent risks.
She waits for the guilt to start, the regret, but it doesn’t. What does she feel? She tests out emotions. Scared, yes. Definitely scared. She’s deleted her browsing history seventeen, eighteen times. But they have ways of finding these things out, and somewhere, etched onto the Internet, is her name, her address, her PayPal account: what she did. When, where and how. She, or anyone who helps her, could be jailed for life. So, scared. (pp. 19–20)
In interviews, Caldwell has described her interest in writing about liminal or ‘in-between spaces’ (e.g. cars, airports and planes), where ‘time seems to stop, or is elsewhere for a while’, where alternative outcomes or different life paths open up, albeit momentarily. This is particularly true of the prize-winning story, All the People Were Mean and Bad, in which a young mother is on a night flight from Vancouver to London – the journey home from her cousin’s funeral. She is accompanied by her daughter – a toddler too young to have her own seat but too old to sit comfortably on her mother’s lap. The story’s title comes from a book about Noah’s Ark, which the mother hates but reads to her daughter, giving in to the child’s need to be occupied during the flight.
As the night unfolds, the mother gets chatting to the man in the adjacent seat, a fifty-six-year-old divorcee with children of his own – now fully grown. The man is kind and helpful, sympathetic to the young mother’s situation, travelling on her own with a restless child in need of comfort and distraction.
This beautifully crafted story explores the gaps between who we are now and who we thought we would become, say ten or twenty ago. How our lives invariably turn out to be quite different from the futures we once imagined, often without clearly defined plans or conscious decisions on our part.
How time as a measure is, for a while, entirely meaningless, in this time out of time, and how distance is too, and about the distances we travel, between where we come from and where we end up, between who we thought we were and who we turn out to be. (pp. 126–127)
You have Riedel wine glasses and Dartington Crystal champagne flutes yourself now, and Japanese knives and a proper knife-sharpener, and sometimes, even peonies in vases, or at least in a vase. Where has it all come from? How have you graduated, almost without noticing, from novelty shot glasses and wine glasses nicked from pubs, thick-rimmed and engraved with measures, to this? […] And yet: you can’t shake the sense that it has all crept up on you without your wanting or asking for it, without your feeling any different than you did at twenty-nine, twenty-seven, or, yes, twenty-four (p. 124)
It’s also about the possibility of taking a different path in the future, how our lives can turn on the tiniest moments – split-second decisions that open up the possibility of excitement and desire alongside danger and guilt. There is a frisson of attraction between these two travellers, adding a degree of tension, a sense of will-they-or-won’t-they, to the scene when they should part.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of this luminous collection of stories, but hopefully it’s given you a flavour of what to expect. Caldwell writes beautifully about motherhood, womanhood, life-changing moments and alternative futures. By zooming in on her protagonists’ hopes, fears, preoccupations and desires, Caldwell has found the universal in the personal, offering stories that will resonate with many of us, irrespective of our personal circumstances.
I absolutely loved this story collection and was so impressed with the author that I attended a short Arvon masterclass with her. She was every bit as thoughtful, nuanced and inspiring as her prose had led me to expect. So much so, I then watchedthe recorded masterclass another two times!
How lovely! I’ve heard Caldwell being interviewed on the radio a couple of times, and she definitely comes that way – very empathetic and inspiring.
This does sound wonderful and an award winning lead story to hold it together. And given Marina’s accolades above, a writer to watch.
Yes, I was very impressed! She’s been shortlisted for the BBC Short Story Award a couple of times, so it was lovely to see her win with this one. If you’re interested to read it, you can do so via the link in my piece – just scroll down to the bottom of the Guardian article and you’ll find it.
So glad you enjoyed this Jacqui – I thought it was a masterful collection and All The People Were Mean and Bad a stunning story. I had an ARC of her new novel – These Days – and am very much looking forward to it.
Yes, I’d noticed that she has a novel coming out next year – and it’s set in 1941, which is just my kind of era!
That sounds like a very clever and carefully observed collection, I felt a sense of horror in your description of the first story (I don’t suppose you can reassure the nervous reader there?!).
Yes, the way it builds is very impressive – plus, it gives a sense of each narrative being part of a bigger picture, not just a series of separate stories collected together for a book. (I’ll message about about the ending of the first story rather than reveal it here!)
Pleased to see that you enjoyed this one so much, Jacqui, not least because I have a copy waiting to be read on my own shelves!
Oh, great. I hope you enjoy it, Susan. (Fingers crossed you will!)
I must admit to being scared off by the first story but by the end of your thoughtful review I feel I must read this!
It’s an excellent collection of stories, Jane. You could always skip the first one if you feel it might be triggering…
Wonderful review Jacqui – I find the idea of exploring those liminal spaces and tiny moments so appealing. I’ll be off to click the link now as you’ve convinced me this is a writer to try!
Oh, excellent! I hope you enjoy the story. It’s also available to listen to via BBC Sounds. There’s a link here for anyone who’s interested. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000zsf7
Lovely review Jacqui, and what a marvellous sounding collection. That focus on women’s experiences of motherhood sounds totally on point, and actually triggers quite a few unsettling moments from my past (we lost Eldest Child for a few minutes in the middle of Bangor High Street when on holiday – he was about 6 or so and it was quite terrifying…) Having and bringing up children can be a traumatic experience at times…
Oh, god….that must have been devastating for you. It’s every parent’s nightmare, isn’t it? And so easily done, especially when they’re young. Thank goodness he was only out of your sight for a few minutes, that’s some comfort at least. Returning to the book for a moment, Caldwell captures those moments of anxiety so well – the fears that assail us when the imagination runs amok…
This really sounds like a fantastic collection. I like collections that have that feeling of connectedness, with a theme running through each story. Like This and Mayday are two stories which particularly appeal to me.
I think you’d really like this collection, Ali. Caldwell’s stories are so insightful and humane – she has a wonderful knack for highlighting something meaningful in the routine / everyday.
So clever how she depicts the intensity of being a parent. Just reafing your description took me right backto the feeling of panic that can be overwhelming.
Yes, completely. Even though I’m not a mother myself, I could relate to the emotions she captures in her fiction, which is all one can ask.
I’ve read her first collection ‘Multitudes’ and was really impressed with her voice and ability. It’s also a group of stories that are linked, in that book by the East Belfast location and growing up. Though her stories have made it over here her novels haven’t, and I hope that changes and a publisher picks them up because she is certainly a writer to follow.
Oh, that’s great to hear, particularly as I loved this collection so much! I first came across Caldwell when an earlier story of hers was shortlisted for the BBC Short Story Award, maybe 5 or 6 years ago. Now I’m wondering if that story is included in Multitudes. I’ll have to take a closer look. She’s also got a new novel (These Days) coming out next year, which is something to look forward to. Hopefully it will be picked up for a US release, given her recent success with Intimacies.
Great review – you’ve really sold this to me! I love the sense of unease which I feel goes hand in hand with the joy of raising children. It reminded me a little of Janice Galloway’s collection Jellyfish which you might enjoy.
Excellent! I’m really glad to hear you say that, Grant. I don’t know if you’re still part of a book group at school, but if so, it might be a good one for discussion. And thanks for recommending Jellyfish. I’ve been meaning to read Janice Galloway for a while, so that sounds like an excellent one to try.
So the theme makes it feel interconnected, but none of the characters overlap? Either way, the stories sound very good to me. But, admittedly, I’m a little obsessed with linked collections.
Yes, that’s correct. All the characters are different, but the stories share common emotions and themes. It’s very cleverly done as that sense of connectivity adds something to the reading experience. If you’d like to read her prize-winning story, it’s printed in full at the bottom of this Guardian article.
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