Eleven more stories from Northern Irish writer Lucy Caldwell on what it means to be a woman; stories of trying to find one’s place in the world; stories of heartbreaks and mistakes; secrets from friends and (mis)trust of strangers; frivolities of youth and anxieties of motherhood, and vice versa. From a young mother, husband away and mind racing in the dark, to a frightened student swallowing abortion pills bought illegally online; from a hopeful, nostalgic walk through Belfast streets on Christmas Eve, to a long-haul flight where alternative lives are imagined for a time, these are stories of love and getting lost, of home and exile, of existing in the liminal space of both here and elsewhere.
The opening story, ‘Like This’, evokes the fears and madness of motherhood – a theme which arises throughout the collection – exploring dark spaces of the mind where what might have happened happens, and what might have been, is. Then, ‘Mayday’, a girl’s fearful fight for her right to choose – dissolving tablets under her tongue, alone in a university bedroom – before abortion was made legal in Ireland in 2018; and a few pages later, in ‘Jars of Clay’, another young woman’s struggle with the realisation that the morals she was raised with might not be self-evident after all, that homemade banners might not describe every human life. Finally, in the titular story, ‘Intimacies’, Caldwell writes a letter to a child that never was – to us too, perhaps – imparting tender life lessons and hesitant confessions of things they – we – ought to know. She gives us “Intimacies…catafalque, charism, eavesdropping…holy of holies, infinitude, intertwine…jubilate, tantamount, tantivy, unfurl.” She gives us “these words and all of the words…All things, everything, at once.”
“Stories of heartbreaks and mistakes; secrets from friends and (mis)trust of strangers; frivolities of youth and anxieties of motherhood, and vice versa”
Read in one sitting – an almost-thirty woman curled up in an armchair in a hotel room, thinking about how she should be at work; how her mother thinks she should be a mother herself by now; how absurd it is to feel guilt for not having things she’s not sure she wants anyway – I see myself mirrored in these stories, in these women who could be my dearest friends, or simply strangers on the tube whose lives cross with my own for the moment our eyes meet. I know I will think of them often; I will return to their stories, in the intimacy of being alone with each one, away from the rush of that first, heady reading. Guided by the ghosts of Monica Lewinsky, Caroline Norton, Sinéad O’Connor, I know instinctively that the women in these stories would understand me too, somehow, because they don’t seem like fiction at all.
And it is in this reality, the keenness of feeling these stories – these intimacies – evoke, that the genius of this new collection from Caldwell lies. For she is not trying to be clever, there is no smart point to be made, except that these stories we live through hurt sometimes, and they are beautiful; that these words on the page, this moment here, for someone somewhere, is real life.
Words: Hannah Clarkson
Listen to Lucy in conversation on RTE’s Arena here.