“Vivid depictions of total destruction” – These Days by Lucy Caldwell

IMG_2022-3-24-133049On the rare occasions one stumbles over a novel like this, it is difficult not to just write a list of reasons why others should read it. It is that sort of novel that you enjoy, put down, and are still thinking about several days later, before passing it on to a friend so that you can talk about it with others.

Set in Belfast in April and May 1941 These Days takes in the Blitz that devastated the city and brought the realities of total war burning into the lives of the Belfast people. We are taken through these events by the women of the Bell family. Middle class, proud, proper, and somewhat ordinary, their lives are changed and revealed by the events of the two months.

Audrey is turning 21. In a long-term relationship with Richard, a doctor with ideas on how to improve the city for the post war world, she floats through her life like an actor through a set. Sociable, pretty and chatty, she has the makings of a perfect wife and mother. However, she finds herself longing to wear red lipstick on her birthday, kiss Richard until she is dizzy, and keep her job at the tax office. Her office has recently seen the arrival of Doreen. Relocated from London, she is worldly, interested in all around her, and one of the few women Audrey has encountered that has chosen a career over being a wife. Showing that there may be a different life possible, Audrey is intrigued and keen to become friends. Very different, they share a passion for literature and a desire for an all encompassing love.

Meanwhile, younger sister Emma is awkward, less social, dedicated to her voluntary position at a First Aid post. On the first night of the bombing, she longs to be with her colleagues instead of hiding under the stairs with her family. Through her position her life is opening up and taking shape. She finds something to satisfy her need to be productive and useful, while at the same time her new friends and colleagues introduce her to different ways of living. None more so than her dear friend Sylvia. Sylvia represents life for Emma. Her hunger for knowledge and beauty; how she makes everything light up around her and is an anchor in the storm. Their friendship turns into a love affair, one that holds Emma enraptured. Although it must remain hidden, the times they spend together are endearing and vital.

When the bombing comes everything changes. Nights of air raid sirens, incendiaries and death. And with it every person is touched and changed by it. The description of the devastation caused is stark and haunting. As Audrey and Emma’s live are altered irrevocably, their parents experience something similar. Their father, Philip, tends to the wounded as a doctor and in doing so becomes mentally wounded himself: touched by the desolation he witnesses. Their mother Florence is the perfect vision of middle – class homeliness. In a secret part of her heart though she still longs for a lost love, taken from her by another war when not much more than a girl herself.

The Blitz strips them down to the core and reveals to themselves who they really are. As the city is reshaped around the sisters, they end up leaving parts of them behind and despite so much death, there is also so much life bursting through. As some search for a passionate, consuming love, others have the need to relearn how to live in the aftermath of one. The hunger for more, whatever they may be, is evocatively portrayed and brought to life on the page.

Any Cop?: Caldwell demonstrates a rare ability to combine the delicate with vivid depictions of total destruction. Different lives are woven together with delicacy and intelligence. Perhaps best known for her short stories, These Days shows Caldwell as a first-class novelist.

Laura Marriott

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