Jhis beautiful novel by one of Northern Ireland’s most accomplished contemporary writers depicts the Belfast Blitz, a series of attacks on the city by the Luftwaffe in 1941. The evocation of violence and destruction by Lucy Caldwell is terrifying. Familiar avenues and buildings become a dystopia from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. “There are dogs that have outlived their owners, now gathering in huddled, hungry packs in brickyards, mill fields and parks.”
The fear is building day by day. Entire streets disappear at night. “The Germans will come back, everyone knows that. It’s just a matter of when. Citizens haggle with fate; perhaps the bombers will only attack the city’s factories and shipyards, not its residential neighborhoods and acres of Victorian working-class housing. An exodus of evacuees heads for the countryside: “Cars, carts, bicycles, prams, bath chairs… anything with wheels. The rag and bone men, the coke men, the auldfellas with their ice cream trikes. And at the heart of the story are more personal disturbances, making the book something richer than a well-crafted historical novel.
These Days is the story of two sisters, “Audrey, fickle, impulsive and serious” and “Emma, kind, stubborn and clumsy”. Audrey is engaged to a doctor, Richard, an only child whose sexual reluctance becomes problematic, as does her plan to move the couple in with her elderly parents after the wedding, because there is no point in buying a house that could be blown up.
Meanwhile, Emma falls in love with Sylvia, a woman 11 years her senior, a radiant character, in love with life, then an absence so vivid that she feels like a presence. Like the flames reflected in the windows, in this novel love is real but elusive. No one ever really knows where it comes from.
The great Belfast-born novelist, Brian Moore, volunteered as an air raid director during World War II and served in the Belfast Blitz. The pristine clarity of his prose finds occasional echoes in Caldwell’s strong, understated writing, though his lively voice is his own. She does not describe the characters: with great dexterity, she embodies them on the page. There are few metaphors or similes. Empathy enlightens words.
The attention to detail is sharp and the understanding of family, especially parenthood, is striking. There comes a time, she thought then, this is the last time you will bear your children, and it comes without you knowing it, without you marking it.
Those Days is a brilliantly crafted and organized novel. The narrative point of view changes but the change is never shocking. About a third of the way through, a remarkable chapter takes the story in a completely unexpected but inevitably logical direction, opening up a room the reader hasn’t noticed is there. Written in the third person close to the point of view of the sisters’ mother, this sequence deepens the book with great subtlety, a kind of writer’s skill. The quiet stoicism of these pages is so at odds with the grief and loss they describe, the adjustment to a painfully flawed world, that the effect is breathtaking.
Caldwell, winner of the 2021 BBC National Short Story Award for All the People Were Mean and Bad, is also well known as a playwright. The drama of this novel is intense. The timing is perfectly managed; the revelation of information is well paced. The thriller elements pair well with scenes of domestic life in middle-class wartime Belfast, a location of “yesterday’s leek and potato pie” and “soft lettuce leaves in the tray”. vegetables with a piece of charcoal to revive them”. It’s a Northern Ireland not often seen in novels, but Caldwell exploits its gloom for beauty.
Those of us with family ties to Ulster will recognize the flint and saltiness of some dialogue. Local words and phrases bring pleasant music. “Gulde”. “Buck-eejit”. “I want to hear you.” “They ate buckets of willows, tearing periwinkles out of their shells.” “Do you see me, miss? If I had brains, I would be dangerous. “You think I came to Lagan in a bubble? Nothing brings characters to life more powerfully than understanding how they speak, and Caldwell does it with cool confidence.
The surrealism of wartime violence rises like smoke from the writing. In makeshift mortuaries around the city, workers use watering cans to sprinkle disinfectant. “Bulging burlap sacks” contain dismembered limbs. A house saw its entire facade washed away. “A mirror on the half landing shimmering in the void. The hallway shimmered: the wallpaper, the walls, were glued with glass daggers. These passages are haunted by images of later violence in the same city, ghosts of the future of Belfast. Caldwell does not name them explicitly, but they hover in the margins of this impressive novel.