Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell review – too close for comfort


An outstanding collection of short stories about the vulnerability and enlightenment of motherhood

(, 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”.