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Intimacies: Eleven flawless stories from Lucy Caldwell full of eloquence and empathy

Short stories

Intimacies

Lucy Caldwell

Faber & Faber, 176 pages, hardcover, €14.99; e-book £5.57

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Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell

Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell

Author Lucy Caldwell

Author Lucy Caldwell

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Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell

It’s tempting to make large claims about this slender volume — to say something like: “Along with Kevin Barry, Lucy Caldwell is the finest practitioner of the short story currently at work on this island.” But each small story is so beautifully made that, in the end, large claims feel appropriate. Intimacies is Caldwell’s second collection, following Multitudes (2016). The first book was superb. The second is even better. Eleven perfect stories, each one powerfully moving, empathetic, passionate, eloquent — apparently simple, actually profound. Caldwell is also a novelist and playwright. She won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 2011. But she still flies under the radar of general acclaim.

Perhaps this is because of the apparent modesty of her subjects. Her stories aren’t about Big Events (more often, they’re about the Big Events that don’t happen, or that haven’t happened yet). Caldwell knows that ordinary hours contain within them depths of emotional significance: love, terror, mourning, hope. She is therefore scrupulously attentive to the ordinary in matters of language, behaviour, experience. The ordinary, in these stories, is where the numinous lives.

She doesn’t go in for obvious prose pyrotechnics. The language of her stories hews closely to the interior lives of her characters. At the same time, she extracts from ordinary moments flashes of striking, richly textured beauty. A memory of swimming lessons: “the lane ropes being dragged into place and the club swimmers powering up and down in their powder-blue caps, flipping into easy tumbleturns, length, after length, after length.” Trees in winter “not yet even imagining their leaves”.

The stories in Intimacies are unified by a theme. In each of these pieces, children are the heart of meaning. Has anyone written better about the experience of minding small children? “This burden, this privilege”; “the quotidian task and blessing of it.” A newborn baby is “terrifyingly flimsy and insubstantial, as if, though you try not even to think it, they haven’t yet committed to the world”. What children mean: the secular epiphanies they give us, perhaps by their presence, perhaps by their absence. “We get to choose, in this life, what is most holy, and we must do our best to honour it.”

In Mayday, a university student takes abortion pills that she has ordered online, and waits in her rented house for them to take effect. This is evidently the Republic, pre-2018. The blighting effect of religious intolerance is summoned indirectly, via memories of being mocked, as a Protestant child, for taking communion, and of a fire-and-brimstone minister who mocked the protagonist for the “vanity” of bobbing her hair to avoid nits. The widely shared nature of her predicament is suggested subtly, too: “She will be one of the lucky ones. She will. She will.” The story is set, of course, on the first of May, but Caldwell leaves it up to us to remember that “Mayday” has another meaning too.

A young American woman travels with her church group to Dublin to campaign for a No vote in the abortion referendum in Jars of Clay. Caldwell is not in the business of judging. The remark made by an older female stranger, “you know nothing, nothing of life,” carries heavy ironic freight; the young woman knows more than she can admit to herself, including a secret about the nature of her own desires.

In All the People Were Mean and Bad, a young mother flies home for the funeral of her female cousin. On the plane, a kind older man helps her to care for her toddler. Nothing happens; everything happens. In Night Waking (note the title’s allusion to Eavan Boland’s great poem ‘Night Feed’): a breastfeeding mother, alone with the kids after midnight, hears a footstep in the hallway. “Something is happening, somewhere, you tell yourself, but not here, not here, not now.”

Like This finds a mother leaving her infant daughter with a stranger in a café while she takes her toddler son to the bathroom. In nine pages, the meaning of parenthood, its pressures and terrors, its depths of love are all faultlessly evoked.

But every one of these stories is faultless. There is a stunning, original talent at work here: a sharp political mind, a precise observational eye, and an extraordinary capacity for empathy.

Intimacies returns again and again to “The layers beneath. The bones.” Like This features a Perspex floor above “old Roman walls and bronze-cast statues.” People Tell You Everything notes “a hidden river running the length of High Street in Belfast that once you knew about you couldn’t help but feel underfoot”.

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This is something like the effect that Caldwell achieves in her stories. She makes us feel the hidden rivers running beneath our ordinary lives. These spare 156 pages contain, if you’ll pardon the allusion, multitudes.

Kevin Power’s novel White City is published by Scribner UK


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