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Posts Tagged ‘Lucy Caldwell’

I have long been fascinated by the Second World War, it’s a subject I seem to return to in my fiction reading particularly, time and time again. Although, I generally prefer novels of wartime life to have been written during the period, I have also read lots of excellent historical novels written in the decades since, These Days will definitely join that list.

I had originally wanted to read this novel during Reading Ireland month, but I ordered it a little too late and by the time it arrived I was reading something else. It was the reviews of other bloggers that had prompted me to buy it.

The London Blitz has been written about tirelessly since the first bombs rained down on the capital all those years ago. We are familiar with the stories of Londoners being bombed out their homes, sat in underground shelters for hours, drinking weak cocoa by torchlight. Less familiar to many of us I suspect is the story of the Belfast Blitz. The Belfast Blitz occurred between April and May 1941, four separate, nightly bombardments, that came to be called The Dockside Raid, The Easter Raids and the Fire Raids – sections of Lucy Caldwell’s brilliant novel named for these attacks. These attacks were utterly devastating for Belfast the loss of life was horrendous, the city landscape changed immeasurably and many wondered whether Belfast wasn’t finished by it.

“She realises she didn’t wake voluntarily from the dream. Not even at the behest of some desperate instinct to protect herself – or flee. It was something else that jolted her awake.

And then she hears it again. The Long roaring whine of a plane flying overhead, unmistakable, the crackle of what must be gunfire, then a dreadful, dull booming thud.”

Lucy Caldwell recreates this period with unflinching honesty. We see the events through the eyes of the Bell family. Phillip Bell is a doctor; he and his wife Florence have three children who live with them. Their two daughters are grown up, twenty-one year old Audrey who works in the tax office and Emma who at just eighteen, is volunteering at the local first aid post. Then there is the youngest, Paul even at thirteen he is very much still a boy, playing games of adventure and reading comics. The sisters are quite different, Audrey is engaged to a serious, safe young doctor, Richard, but she has a head full of dreams and ideas of how life could be so different. Emma is very serious and dedicated to the first aid post, she is very kind though sometimes a little awkward – she has begun a secret relationship with another woman, at the first aid post, Sylvia who is almost thirty.

At work Audrey has become friends with Doreen Bates, a woman some years older than herself who has come to work in Belfast from London. Audrey is impressed by Doreen’s cultured ease, and through their conversations she begins to wonder about her relationship with Richard, and whether her feelings for him are enough to sustain a marriage. Emma has been bowled over by Sylvia, she hadn’t known she could feel like this – and she needs Sylvia’s steadying hand to stop her from shouting her joy from the rooftops – Sylvia well knows the difficulties they could face.

Meanwhile, their mother Florence is trying to hold them all together – she worries for them all as they are out and about, and she is at home with Paul. As the planes gather overhead, she fears what could happen to her girls. She also carries a guilt – guilt that she doesn’t love her husband enough, as much as he deserves.

“On the landing she thinks: What if that were the last time I were to see him? And she thinks, with shame, Even when we were making love just now, even then, I wasn’t truly there: it wasn’t Philip I was thinking of.”

For with her always is the ghost of another man, a young man Reynard, killed in the First World War, her first love. She allows a bit of time during the weekly Sunday service to think about him, trying to put him away the rest of the time, and yet he remains there still after all those years.  All of these concerns continue, against a backdrop of almost unimaginable destruction, death and injury.

“The fires, the tramlines ripped from the road and pointing up in helpless angles at the sky. A tram car on its side. With every breath, the thick stench of burning lodged deeper in you. The people you passed in the streets, some walking with purpose, some wandering one way, then turning and walking back the other. Others just standing.”

No one will be left unaffected by the raids – how could they be. Lucy Caldwell is unflinching in her portrayal of the aftermath of each raid – and of the effect it has on the people in the midst of it. Injury and death is everywhere, people witness to the kinds of horror they will never forget, houses razed to the ground, bodies laid out at the local swimming baths for identification. Grief and unimaginable loss becoming a daily story.

This is an intensely moving story, Caldwell’s descriptions of the German raids, the fear of the people and their incredible resilience is breath-taking – it feels so real. A truly wonderful novel by an author I clearly need to read more by.

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