Thursday 8 December 2016

Fiction: Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell

Faber & Faber, €19.00

Anne Cunningham

Published 26/09/2016 | 02:30

Lucy Caldwell. Photo: Tom Routh
Lucy Caldwell. Photo: Tom Routh
Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell

Multitudes is a collection of 11 short stories with the unified theme of growing up in a society that is anything but unified.

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The backdrop is Belfast of the 1980s and 1990s, pre-Good Friday Agreement. Caldwell depicts 'the Troubles' more as a distant threat, though, than as an integral part of these sharp, pungent tales. All except one story involve teenage girls, and she's fond of the second-person "you" narrative, giving them an edgy, if sometimes confusing, tone.

Pain is ubiquitous here in these bleak, small dramas, although Killing Time, about a 13-year-old who tries to kill herself for no obvious reason, raises a few wry grins. She wakes up after an insufficient overdose and "things go on as usual: school, viola practice, homework."

In Here We Are, Caldwell writes with particular tenderness about a young lesbian affair, while in Thirteen, a girl has lost her best friend to emigration. Letters become less frequent, with finally just a postcard.

The title story, Multitudes, is about a couple whose baby is born prematurely and very ill. Borrowing from Sontag's Illness as Metaphor, the mother stumbles through the "kingdom of the sick" in terror for her tiny son. Caldwell's characters struggle with their lives and their pain, but in the distance there's an insistent beat of fragile hope, along with a bar or two of Van Morrison - always welcome.

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