Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell

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Reviewed by Harriet

I’ve read and enjoyed all three of  the prizewinning Belfast writer Lucy Caldwell’s full-length novels, so, though short stories are not usually my genre of choice, I was excited to get my hands on a review copy of Multitudes. And what a little gem it is. All the stories, apart from the devastatingly powerful final one, which gives its name to the collection, concern different facets of growing up, trying to understand a puzzling world and to find your own place in it. All, too, are told from a female perspective. It’s tempting to wonder how autobiographical the stories are (a question Lucy answers in her Q&A in our BookBuzz section), but in the end of course this is irrelevant – what’s important is what a writer does with the material, no matter where it originates. And these stories have an astonishing beauty and a resonance that lasts beyond the reading of them, a resonance that comes largely from the fact that they are mostly so understated that you are left pondering the implications long after the end of the story.

In ‘The Ally Ally O’, the opening story of the collection, a young girl and her sister sit in a car, driving with their mother through Belfast in the pouring rain. She’s secretly obsessing about the book she bought for herself, The World’s Greatest Disasters. It’s taken a hold on her, so she’s been banned from reading it before bed, and sometimes wishes she could be banned entirely. The car journey is  supposedly arbitrary, but it ends up at the top of a hill, with an amazing view over the city. ‘When I first came over, your mum says suddenly, your dad drove me up here to watch the lights come on all over the city. That’s when I thought, yes, I could live here after all’. The girls learn something new about their mother’s past, but the narrator can’t drag her thoughts away from the terrible sea and the icebergs that caused the sinking of the Titanic.

‘Poison’ is a story about adolescent sexuality and its devastating effects. A young woman sitting in a hotel bar catches sight of a man drinking with a girl who must be more than half his age, and recognises him as Mr Knox, her one-time schoolteacher. Attractive and charismatic, fancied by all the girls, Mr Knox was a man with a past – he’d divorced his first wife and was married to Davina, an ex-pupil with whom he’d had a decidedly suspect relationship while she was still at school. One bored afternoon, the narrator and her friends had managed to find their way to his house where they spotted Davina getting out of her car with her babies. The narrator knocked on the door and lied her way into the house where she managed to steal a condom and a bottle of perfume, ‘Poison’. She lurked around Mr Knox in class, spraying the perfume, hoping for a reaction, but didn’t get one. Then she succeeded in getting him to give her a lift in his car, and told her friends an invented story about having sex with him in the back. The story got back to the school, Mr Knox was sacked, and Davina left him. Now, in the story’s present, the narrator watches the couple on the other side of the bar and tries to convince herself that the girl is Mr Knox’s daughter. But is she really?

Sexuality raises its head again several times in the collection. In ‘Through the Wardrobe’, the six-year-old protagonist is taken shopping to buy dressing-up clothes, and falls desperately in love with a gold lamé dress, a copy of one worn by a Disney heroine. But the appearance of the child’s mother, with the choice of an Aladdin outfit or a Peter Pan costume reveals the truth – this is a young boy, who secretly already knows he is in the wrong body. At the end, the boy manages to dress up in one of his sisters’ gold ball gowns, and sees in the mirror how right and beautiful he looks. ‘It’s a blessing’ the story goes on, ‘that the mirror can’t – like the mirrors in fairy tales – show you what lies ahead’, though this wouldn’t dent the child’s sense of absolute rightness. In ‘Here We Are’, two girls fall in love with each other at school and have an intense, short-lived affair, brought to a sudden close when one girl’s father walks in on them. They lose touch, and the narrator is shocked when she discovers that her one-time lover is happily engaged to be married.

The prize-winning story ‘Killing Time’ tells of the agonising aftermath of a young teenager’s failed suicide attempt. Though she’s taken far too few paracetemol to actually kill her, she is horrified soon afterwards to hear an account of a woman who took too many paracetemol and died sometime later from liver failure. How long did it take? She asks. ‘A few days’. Life becomes beyond terrifying – she can’t bring herself to tell anyone what she did, she counts the days – how many is a few? – watches herself for signs that she’s dying.

I could go on, but you get the general idea – though I must say that summing up the stories like this does them no justice at all.  Lucy Caldwell’s real skill is to see deeply into the hearts and minds of her protagonists, showing what goes on under the surface, the secret lives that their friends and relations never suspect. As for that last story, Lucy has transmuted a real, and recent, experience into something agonising, heart-rending, but ultimately, thank goodness, a story with a happy ending. Wonderful stuff, highly recommended.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books. 

Read a Q&A with Lucy Caldwell here.

Lucy Caldwell, Multitudes (Faber, 2016). 978-0571313501, 192pp., paperback original.

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