Lucy talks to Tom Suthcliffe on Front Row about her short story “All the People were Mean and Bad”, winner of the BBC Short Story Prize. You can hear the full story in a recording here.
Author: [email protected]
Two sisters, four nights, one city.
April, 1941. Belfast has escaped the worst of the war – so far. Over the next two months, it’s going to be destroyed from above, so that people will say, in horror, My God, Belfast is finished.
Many won’t make it through, and no one who does will remain unchanged.
Following the lives of sisters Emma and Audrey – one engaged to be married, the other in a secret relationship with another woman – as they try to survive the horrors of the four nights of bombing which were the Belfast Blitz, These Days is a timeless and heart-breaking novel about living under duress, about family, and about how we try to stay true to ourselves.
These days will be published by Faber & Faber in March 2022
Praise for “These Days”
“[Caldwell] doesn’t describe characters: with great deftness she incarnates them on the page. There are few metaphors or similes. Empathy lights the words. t’s a Northern Ireland not often seen in novels, but Caldwell mines its bleakness for beauty.”
Joseph O’Connor, The Guardian (read full review)
“…the sumptuousness of the prose, the evocativeness of the descriptions and the fully realised characters, all of which make this a masterly achievement.”
Lara Feigel, Spectator (read full review)
“The centrepiece of the novel is, of course, in the horror of the Blitz. Caldwell is excellent at widening and narrowing her gaze, like the shutter of a camera opening and closing. Audrey’s walk across the city in the aftermath of the heaviest night of bombing gives us the widescreen view, and then short focus is provided with Caldwell’s excellent eye for the right detail: undertakers’ horses running wild through the streets; a volunteer in a market-turned-mortuary ‘chalking onto the sides of each coffin its contents’.”
John Self, The Critic (read full review)
“Caldwell’s writing, at such moments, is superlative. And it’s for her sure-footed and disturbingly intense recreation of a forgotten atrocity that These Days deserves to be read, and admired.”
Miranda Seymour, Financial Times (read full review)
“These Days is a beautiful homage to the city, its suffering and people. It is also an eloquent meditation on the transience of love and beauty, the fact that moments in time are all anyone ever has, until suddenly they stop.”
Ruth Scurr, Times Literary Supplement (read full review)
“Caldwell has created a really beautiful novel here – an engrossing, evocative portrayal of the Belfast Blitz […] 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.”
Jacqui Wine (read full review)
“Caldwell demonstrates a rare ability to combine the delicate with vivid depictions of total destruction. Different lives are woven together with delicacy and intelligence. Perhaps best known for her short stories, These Days shows Caldwell as a first-class novelist.”
Laura Marriott, Bookmunch (read full review)
‘A gem of a novel, I adored it.’
‘A novel of enormous heart; full of luminous passages of prose, this tale of the Belfast blitz is breathtakingly good.’
Alex Preston, Observer, Fiction to look out for in 2022
‘Meticulously researched, perfectly imagined, full of compassion and emotional truth.’
‘Adroit, precise storytelling, atmospheric and satisfying; These Days is a novel of real substance.’
‘What a visceral, powerful, authentic novel! It’s hard to believe Lucy Caldwell didn’t actually live through the Belfast Blitz, it’s so accurately depicted. I felt I was there with the bombs, the blood, the chaos, the fear, and the resilience.’
‘Caldwell’s luminous novel presents a city under siege and a family in anguish. Her sense of life during wartime and her psychological portraiture cannot be faulted; the cumulative force of personal and public crisis will not be forgotten. This is storytelling of a vertiginously high order.’
‘A captivating novel exploring a lesser known chapter of Northern Ireland’s story. Caldwell has managed to capture the spirit and tenacity of the Belfast I know and love. This is a novel which looks suffering straight in the eye and yet will leave you full of hope.’
Lucy’s Top Ten Books about the Belfast Blitz
The Diaries of Doreen Bates: Lucy Caldwell in conversation with Dr. Margaret EsiriAudio & Video, Interviews, News
Doreen Bates is a truly remarkable woman: ahead of and unvanquished by her time.
Born in Plymouth in 1906, she was posted to Belfast as a Tax Inspector in 1941, where she survived the Belfast Blitz, documenting it meticulously for the Mass Observation project, as “Diarist 5245”, and in her own private journals.
A selection of Doreen’s diaries were published by Viking in 2016 as Diary of a Wartime Affair, and deserve to take their place as one of the essential chronicles of the twentieth century. Brimming with soul, passion, candour and wit, they are an extraordinary read, giving a vivid insight into the life of a woman unvanquished by her time. Edited in an act of great love and generosity by her children, they detail the minutiae of her daily life in the 1930s and 40s, in love with her married boss.
In this event, Lucy Caldwell will be in conversation with Dr Margaret Esiri, daughter and editor of Doreen Bates. Lucy will talk of encountering Doreen Bates in the course of her research into the Belfast Blitz, and of writing her as a character into the forthcoming novel, and Margaret will talk of her memories of her mother, of how her mother’s unconventional life shaped her own, and about editing the diaries. Lucy and Margaret will present extracts from the diaries, including exclusive, unpublished extracts from Doreen’s struggles as a single mother to twins during the wartime years, and discuss the extent to which the societal pressures and issues Doreen faced are still relevant to women today, for both Margaret’s generation and Lucy’s, in the balancing act of working motherhood.
All the People Were Mean and BadRead/Listen
Listen to “All the People Were Mean and Bad” by Lucy Caldwell. Read by Laura Pyper.
BBC National Short Story Award 2021Awards, News
For the third year in a row, Lucy Caldwell has been shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2021
Listen to “All the People Were Mean and Bad” by Lucy Caldwell Read by Laura Pyper.
New voices dominate the 2021 BBC NSSA shortlist as three-time nominee Lucy Caldwell is joined by Dublin-born novelist, playwright and screenwriter Rory Gleeson; Orange Prize shortlisted writer Georgina Harding; former postal worker and Creative Writing lecturer Danny Rhodes and journalist, novelist and Mastermind Finalist Richard Smyth.
The BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University (BBC NSSA) shortlist was announced this evening, Friday 10 September 2021, during BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. Celebrating 16 years of the Award, the shortlisted writers have been influenced by a year of lockdowns with a focus on kindness, memory, loss and longing. The judges praised the shortlist for its humanity, compassion and hope with the stories inspired by teenage empathy, time passing and journeys triggered by ‘in-between spaces’ like planes and trains, folklore, loneliness, and the ‘Great Stalin Plan for the Transformation of Nature’.
The BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University 2021 shortlist is:
- ‘All the People Were Mean and Bad’ by Lucy Caldwell
- ‘The Body Audit’ by Rory Gleeson
- ‘Night Train’ by Georgina Harding
- ‘Toadstone’ by Danny Rhodes
- ‘Maykopsky District, Adyghe Oblast’ by Richard Smyth
The BBC National Short Story Award is one of the most prestigious for a single short story, with the winning author receiving £15,000, and four further shortlisted authors £600 each. The 2020 winner of the BBC National Short Story Award was Sarah Hall who won for ‘The Grotesques’. The 2021 winner will be announced live on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row on 19th October 2021.
All five stories will be broadcast on Radio 4 and BBC Sounds and published in an anthology produced by Comma Press. The readers of this year’s stories include Harry Potter and Merlin actress Siân Thomas, who reads ‘Night Train’; Northern Irish actress, Laura Pyper reading ‘All the People Were Mean and Bad’; Irish actor and screenwriter, Emmet Kirwan reading ‘The Body Audit’ and Krypton actor, Blake Ritson, reading ‘Maykopsky District, Adyghe Oblast’. TV actor, Shaun Dooley, whose credits include It’s a Sin, Innocent and Coronation Street completes the line-up reading ‘Toadstone’.
Review of ‘Intimacies’: Lucy Caldwell handles high stakes with delicate authenticityNews
(Niamh Campbell, Irish Independent)
Intimacies, Lucy Caldwell’s second collection of short stories, follows young women interrupted by sudden, destabilising forces
At a point in Lucy Caldwell’s 2013 novel All the Beggars Riding, a character is struck by the anger of a widow: if you have to ask why wives and mothers risked their own health to nurse their dying husbands and sons then you do not, the message is, understand love.
Intimacies, Caldwell’s second collection of short stories, is also a work in which high stakes – the life and death of the body, disaster, violence, illness, loss – play out in domestic life, where they are handled with a delicacy that illuminates, rather than mutes, their profundity.
The stories follow young women, often wives and mothers, in states of domesticity,
interrupted by sudden, destabilising forces in the inner or outer world which prompt a look under the hood, as it were, of love. This love, even when it is reciprocated or anchored in a nuclear family, is lonely.
It also functions, formally, as a kind of emotional trapdoor. This is established in ‘Like This’, the opening story, in which a harried mother’s split-second decision to leave her baby with a stranger leads to a terrifying, dizzying sequence of catastrophe. There is also a moment when, immobilised by fright, she faces a confused crowd:
‘The mass of people; faces, talking. Dark jackets everywhere, brownish hair. A teenager, spots still on her cheeks, wearing the Frankie’s baseball cap and badge.
‘Excuse me, can I help you?’
‘She’s lost her mother.’
‘She’s not her mother.’’’
This proliferation of mothers feels signifcant. In the moment this is a mother who – stricken – needs mothering, and the theme of the sudden, strange, transformative responsibilities of parenthood as something that catapults characters from the
status of child to mother and leaves them bewildered recurs throughout.
In ‘Words for Things’, friends rock buggies while remembering, laughingly but with growing alarm, the mockery of Monica Lewinsky that was current in the 1990s when they were girls.
Dropping more quietly into a trapdoor (as well as “a late-night google black hole”, another place sleepless new mothers go), the protagonist decides to make a junk-food cake she remembers from childhood; eating cherries and marshmallows, she recalls a spirited schoolteacher, the feminist Nell McCafferty, and a host of girls and women sacrificed to the sugared violence of pop misogyny: Anna Nicole Smith, Shannen Doherty, Jade Goody.
She messages her own mother idly and discusses the baby. Her mother tells her – joking, or lightly, once more – “You’ll never be loved so much again.” Questions of love, of values, of what kind of woman is valued and what kind of woman is not, are let wash over us without being resolved.
(read the full review at the Irish Independent)
Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell review – too close for comfortNews
An outstanding collection of short stories about the vulnerability and enlightenment of motherhood
(Carrie O’Grady, The Guardian)
In Making Babies, Anne Enright referred to the months after giving birth as “life in here on the other side”. The mother crosses over; she enters a new room she can’t leave, and everything is different there. In her second collection of stories, Belfast author Lucy Caldwell settles down in that dim, warm room to explore its shadowy corners, breathe its sweet and foetid air, unmask its ghosts.
Intimacies is the perfect title for a collection in which 10 of the 11 stories are about mothers and babies or children. It is a relationship too close for comfort – sometimes literally, as on the red-eye flight Caldwell depicts so expertly, a mother enduring seven hours of toddler on lap, “heavy and warm and limp and sprawling”. Like all the women here, she is caught at a vulnerable moment, when exhaustion, love and grief combine to offer a flash of enlightenment. Caldwell specialises in this exposure of vulnerability: not the gradual peeling away of a character’s emotional onion-skin layers, but the heart-stopping second when a whole potential future gapes before them. It’s particularly powerful in the first story, “Like This”, whose narrator, in a moment of desperation, has left her baby in the care of a total stranger, and is suddenly hit by the implications.
If you want to yank the heartstrings, writing about a stolen baby is a surefire winner. But Caldwell is doing something more interesting: taking the possibility of trauma and rotating it, re-examining it from unusual angles, showing us a fresh, sharp edge of horror. She has an amazing ability to zoom from small-scale to large in an instant, one moment mired in stifling domestic immediacy, the next contemplating the vast shadow of tragedy across the generations. As one woman, awaiting her biopsy results, puts it, families are like an Escher staircase: “The potential grandchildren that I might never even see, joined in a vertiginous rush with the grandmother who only barely met me, the centuries collapsing.”
Four of the stories use a second-person narrator. True to the title, it draws the reader in, makes them complicit – that uneasy intimacy again. But it also awakens one’s inner contrarian, prompting the thought: “You might do that, but it’s not what I would do.” It has the negative effect of making four of her narrators feel like the same person. That aside, this is an outstanding collection. Caldwell’s skill is evident on every page; she maintains effortless control even as she ventures ever deeper into those dark areas “on the other side”.