These Days by Lucy Caldwell  

While much has been written about the impact of WW2 on mainland Britain (London in particular), the fate of Northern Ireland has probably not received the same level of attention. It’s a topic that Lucy Caldwell explores vividly and movingly in her exquisite new novel, These Days, which takes as its focal point a series of attacks – the Dockside Raid, the Easter Raid and the Fireside Raids – that took place in Belfast from April to May 1941. Nine hundred people died and more than a thousand were injured in the Easter Raid alone, making it the biggest loss of life in any single night-raid outside of the London Blitz.

Using these devastating events as a springboard, Caldwell has created a really beautiful novel here – an engrossing, evocative portrayal of the Belfast Blitz, seen through the eyes of the Bells, a fictional middle-class family.

Philip Bell, a Belfast-based GP, and his wife, Florence, have been fairly happily married for twenty-two years. They have three children, all living at home: twenty-one-year-old Audrey, who is flighty, impulsive and bookish; eighteen-year-old Emma, a kind, diligent but somewhat awkward girl who volunteers at the local First Aid unit; and thirteen-year-old Paul, a lively boy who enjoys adventures and making dens. By following these individuals through April and May ‘41, we see the impact of the war on a personal level – not just for the Bell family but the broader Belfast community too.

Audrey, a junior clerk at the Belfast tax office, has just become engaged to Richard, a respectable but somewhat stiff doctor who views marriage as the logical next step in their relationship. But through her friendship with Doreen Bates, a bright independently-minded colleague from London, Audrey begins to wonder whether marriage to Richard will be the right option for her. At twenty-one, she is still eager to experience life and the possibilities it has to offer – and while Richard represents safety and security, Audrey wonders whether she truly loves him enough to go through with it.

Meanwhile, at the local First Aid post, Emma is experiencing the first flushes of love, having fallen for Sylvia, a relaxed, self-assured young woman who works alongside her at the station. This flourishing relationship opens up a new world of possibilities for Emma, giving her a sense of ease and confidence that she has struggled to achieve in the past.

Sylvia toasted some bread and split an orange for breakfast, and then they washed and dressed – Emma in a blouse and cotton slacks of Sylvia’s, too short for her, as Sylvia was half a head smaller, so they flapped ridiculously somewhere around the ankles. Who cares, she thought. They went out into the day. (p. 77)

Florence – the girls’ mother – is an interesting character too. While not unhappily married to Philip, Florence still privately mourns the loss of her former love, Reynard, who was killed in the First World War. She allows herself to think of Reynard during the regular Sunday church service, reminiscing on the happiness of times past and what might have been, had he survived.

What Caldwell does so well here is to make us care about these characters, investing in their respective hopes and dreams, concerns and anxieties – and it’s the depth of this emotional investment that makes her portrayal of the Belfast Blitz so powerful and affecting.

Caldwell excels in capturing so many aspects of the raids, both physical and emotional. From the fear as people wait for the bombings to start, to the panic of searching for the missing and those who may have perished, to depicting the crushing damage to homes in vivid, unflinching detail. In one especially striking scene, she describes a house with the front blown off, exposing the contents within – like a doll’s house, the walls studded with daggers of shattered glass.

The fires, the tramlines ripped from the road and pointing up in helpless angles at the sky. A tram car on its side. With every breath, the thick stench of burning lodged deeper in you. The people you passed in the streets, some walking with purpose, some wandering one way, then turning and walking back the other. Others just standing. (pp. 166-167)

She [Audrey] saw a body in the middle of the road, its limbs splayed at an unusual angle. How are we ever going to recover, she thought, from having seen such things? You can’t think about it – your mind will short-circuit if you do. (p. 170)

Alongside the Bells, Caldwell offers glimpses of other families within their orbit, widening her lens to bring in others from the working classes. There’s six-year-old Maisie Gallagher, whom Audrey helps during the carnage of the Easter Raid, and the teenager, Betty Binks, who works alongside Mrs Price, the Bells’ dutiful charwoman. We see how the bombing raids cut across the social classes, uniting women in their suffering and grief as they come to terms with the horrific impact on families.

In addition to the devastation depicted above, there are some lighter moments too – beautifully painted scenes of dances, children playing together, and couples visiting galleries. Shared moments of intimacy and friendship amidst the ravages of war. Caldwell’s prose is wonderfully vivid and impressionistic, similar to Rosamond Lehmann’s style from Invitation to the Waltz.

The Plaza Ballroom, Chichester Street. Nine o’clock, still just about light outside, that heady moment when the evening tilts to night. A queue of laughing couples, trios of girls arm in arm, all waiting their turn to go through the boxy portico with its neon sign, tickets at the booth, coats bundled over to the cloakroom boy, and hurriedly up the stairs, feeling the floor vibrating under their feet. (p. 83)

There are some brilliant scenes depicted here. Perhaps most notably Audrey’s night at the Floral Hall dance (the evening of the Easter bombing raid), and the Gallaghers’ attempt to smuggle two or three ‘luxuries’ across the Irish border from a day trip to Dublin – a passage that highlights the scarcity of basic items such as decent stockings and children’s shoes.

In summary, this is a beautiful, lyrical novel – a deeply moving tribute to the resilience of the Belfast people who lost and endured so much during the dark days of the Blitz. There’s a very heartfelt passage towards the end, recounting with weight and poignancy the roll call of losses across the city. A poetic elegy of great power and sensitivity – just like Caldwell’s novel as a whole, which I truly adored.

These Days is published by Faber & Faber (another for #ReadIndies); my thanks to the Independent Alliance and the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

38 thoughts on “These Days by Lucy Caldwell  

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ll be interested to see what you think. A very different era and ‘feel’ to Intimacies but the beautiful, lyrical prose style is evident in both.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’ll love it, Kim, just the style of writing you enjoy. Thanks for recommending All the Beggars Riding. I’d completely forgotten that Caldwell had written an earlier novel, so I’ll have to back and some point and seek it out. Good to hear that you rate it so highly!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I couldn’t help but think of Lehman’s prose style as I was reading this. It has a similar impressionist feel in the descriptive sections. A very evocative approach that makes for vivid, imaginative scenes, full of interesting details. You’ll like it, I think!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know…I’m ashamed to say that I wasn’t aware of the full extent of the losses during the Belfast Blitz until I read Caldwell’s book. A very different time and place, but even so, it feels strangely relevant to be writing about this now in light of the current events in Ukraine…

      Reply
  1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Years ago I read Caldwell’s All The Beggar’s Riding, the story of an Irish doctor’s “second” family hidden away in London and his daughter’s growing realization of her father’s double life. Although Caldwell was obviously a very talented writer, and the novel very well done, I wasn’t quite convinced enough to follow her work. Your review, however, makes These Days sound quite intriguing, so Caldwell’s back on the list!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, cool! If it’s any help, I also loved Intimacies, her recent short story collection about motherhood and pregnancy. She’s worth another look, I think, especially if you’re intrigued by this new one. :)

      Reply
  2. Liz Dexter

    This sounds amazing, though might be too graphic for me. I’m afraid I didn’t really know about what Northern Ireland suffered during the war, even if I’d thought about it I’d have probably realised.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I get where you’re coming from on that, but if it’s any help, I don’t think it’s overly graphic or gratuitous in any way at all. Deeply moving rather than harrowing – without ever losing sight of the impact on a multitude of families, if that makes sense.

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    This sounds absolutely marvellous, how have I not heard of it? The Belfast setting really appeals, as you say it’s wartime is rarely written about. The quotes you’ve included are very evocative and a mention of Rosamond Lehmann seals the deal.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’ll love it, Ali, I’m sure of it! The setting, themes and gorgeous prose style are all right up your street – and it’s a compelling deeply affecting story, beautifully told. It’s coming out next week (Thursday, I think), so you’ll probably hear more about it then!

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review as always, Jacqui, and I must admit thisn’t an aspect of wartime I’d thought about before. Those are excellent quotes, and if a book can make you care that much about its characters, it has to be a good one!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Yes, it’s a lesser-known aspect of WW2, I think – the impact of the bombings on Belfast. (I certainly gained a different insight into the war through reading this.) There’s Brian Moore’s The Emperor of Ice-Cream, which I’ve yet to read – a coming-of-age novel set in the city during WW2, based on some of Moore’s own wartime experiences, I think. But that aside, I don’t think I’ve come across many others…

      Reply
  5. gertloveday

    A lovely generous review of a writer I still haven’t read. I also knew nothing about Belfast being targeted in WW2. I will look out for this and am off to look uo info about Lucy Caldwell now.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Gert, that’s very kind of you to say. I knew a little about the Belfast bombings (my mum and her sister grew up in Ireland during the war), but not the extent of the losses and devastation endured by the city. As a writer, Caldwell is well worth checking out. She won the BBC’s National Short Story Award last year (her third shortlisting for the prize), so it’s great to see that her longer fiction is just as good!

      Reply
  6. Julé Cunningham

    This must have been an especially poignant story to be thinking about this week, and I’m definitely a fan of Lucy Caldwell’s writing. A book that I hope will get published here too at some point.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, very much so, Jule. It really hit home, especially in light of what’s happening in Ukraine right now. The fear, the sorrow, the needless destruction of so many and so much…it’s heartbreaking to see… Let’s hope These Days gets a stateside release as it’s such a beautiful book. I think you’d really appreciate it.

      Reply
  7. Cathy746books

    I liked this a lot too Jacqui – the effects of the Blitz in Belfast tend to get overshadowed by the Troubles and I thought she shone a sensitive light on a really traumatic event.

    Reply
      1. Cathy746books

        I didn’t even know that St George’s Market, a space I’ve been in so many times, was used as a temporary morgue, Very sobering but so beautifully written.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          It’s unsettling, isn’t it, when you discover the history of a place like this, somewhere that’s been rebuilt or redeveloped? Very sobering indeed…

          Reply
  8. Jane

    you’re right, Northern Ireland does get overlooked, at least by me. I haven’t read anything by Lucy Caldwell but I realise I must put that right, I think she’s someone I would really get on with!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d really appreciate her fiction, Jane. She’s such a good writer, and it’s a great piece of storytelling here – very involving indeed.

      Reply
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  10. Marcie McCauley

    This sounds amazing, as well as worthwhile. I’d not thought about that much either, which I’m embarrassed to admit. One of the influential books I read early on, about WWII, was American Marge Piercy’s epic Gone to Soldiers, which reframed the events so that readers can see how the lives of “ordinary” women, on the home front, were affected by the conflict too. There are so many different ways to enter into knowing and understanding more about these hard times. What appeals to me about this one is not only filling in a gap in my knowledge but what you’ve said about how she creates scenes.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I don’t know Marge Piercy at all, but I’ll look her up. Many thanks for the suggestion, it sounds excellent and just my kind of thing. There are some incredible scenes in this novel, from images of the devastation caused by war to the lighter moments in between the bombings (e.g. Audrey’s arrival at the dance hall). There’s even a long, ghostly night-time walk through the streets of Belfast, which reminds me a little of an extended scene from Anita Brookner’s novel Look at Me. It’s a very visual book.

      Reply
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