I first came across Caldwell in Sinead Gleeson’s edited collection of Irish women’s writing, The Long Gaze Back: Caldwell’s ‘SOMAT’ was one of that book’s (many) high points, detailing the enforced gestation of a foetus after a woman suffers a fatal stroke and the doctors ignore her family’s wishes and keep her body on life-support so that the pregnancy can continue. If you think that sounds intense, you wouldn’t be wrong, and its daring brutality sets the tone for the rest of Caldwell’s debut collection, Room Little Darker, a book that’s as graphic, confrontational and daring as they come (but funny on top of it, so don’t worry). And if Caldwell’s subject matter is bold – abortion, dementia, paedophilia, sex-bots, drug abuse and more – then her style is even bolder: the stories are densely voiced, laden with colloquialisms and allusions that make them seem, perhaps, difficult, at times, to penetrate, but it’s a difficulty that generally pays off, because to stick with these characters is to be fully submersed in their worlds, and these are each worlds as well imagined as those of any five hundred page epic; Caldwell doesn’t do anything by halves.
‘SOMAT’ aside, top marks go also to ‘Leitrim Flip’ (after a breakup, the narrator embarks on an S&M fling to explore the far reaches of her sexuality, but it goes very wrong when the couple get imprisoned by a demented couple someplace off the N4), ‘Dubstopia’ (a junkie who’s lost all his kids gets into trouble trying to score gear for his wife), and ‘Cadaverous Moves’ (a woman’s faced with the dead body of her brother and recedes into memories of their childhood – there’s not a sappy or nostalgic word in sight, so don’t stress). Caldwell’s cities, particularly Dublin, are manic: her streets are filthy, sexy and bloody, and her characters hold nothing back. But there’s a bawdy humour alongside the politics and the horror: she’s not writing polemics or entertainment pieces – her characters and their situations, however apparently extreme, ring true, which means the stories carry a weight that isn’t to be underestimated: she’s a writer to watch.
If we were to quibble, it is occasionally a little too hard to parse (a quick Google throws up a couple of wildly differing interpretations of the plot of ‘The Implant’) and there’s a touch of the gimmick now and then – ‘Natterbean’ is a great snapshot of a taxi-driver’s night, but the repeated slang loses some impact after a while, and the plot of ‘BoyBot’ would still have as much impact if the Oryx and Crake style sci-fi was toned down. But ‘quibbling’ is the word: it’s a madly impressive debut. It’s feminist, pro-choice and sex-positive, and it’s about as far from the polite clean world of stereotypical middle class literary fiction as you’re likely to get outside a Dennis Cooper novel.
Any Cop?: Thumbs up if you like it good and sordid.