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)