Reviewed by Harriet
‘two sisters, four nights, one city’ is the subtitle of this riveting new novel by Lucy Caldwell. I don’t think I’ve ever used the term riveting in a review before, but it seems to fit the total absorption that overcame me while I was reading it.
The city is Belfast, and the four nights are those of the Belfast Blitz, in which, between 7 April and 6 May 1941, huge swathes of Northern Ireland’s capital city were destroyed in a series of German air raids. With few anti-aircraft guns or bomb shelters, and holding numerous manufactories providing ships and aircraft for the war effort, it must have seemed an easy and rewarding target. Many people died – and with no adequate mortuaries, bodies, and parts of them, were piled in public places for relatives to attempt to identify, though numerous were never claimed and ended in mass graves. Many houses were destroyed or burned down by incendiary bombs. Belfast will never be quite the same again, and nor will the lives of the novel’s young protagonists.
So much for the history. But this is to look at it in retrospect, and Lucy Caldwell’s book is quite literally a blow by blow account of this terrifying month as seen through the eyes of Emma Bell, a volunteer in the First Aid post and her older sister Audrey. Audrey, just turned twenty-one, is working in a dull job in the tax office and, soon after the novel opens, accepts a marriage proposal from Dr Richard Graham, who works with her doctor father. Audrey says at one point that she’s waiting for her life to begin, and the same is true for Emma. Both of them will have their lives radically changed by the time the raids have ended. So too will some of the minor characters, among them Wee Betty Binks, a fourteen-year-old maid, and six-year-old Maisie, who lives a happy, secure life with her Mammy. And not to forget the sisters’ mother Florence Bell, who has her own narrative moments, in which she remembers a lost, never forgotten love.
The novel is structured according to the raids that take place in the course of the month. Thus it begins with The Dockside Raid: Emma is the first to wake up, wondering what noise disturbed her sleep: ‘And then she hears it again. The long, roaring whine of a plane flying overhead, the crackle of what must be gunfire , then a dreadful, dull, booming thud’. The family is roused, and crowds into a tiny space under the stairs. They recite poems, sing hymns. Then they run out of both, and sit silently, trying to count the seconds between the noise of the overhead planes and the sound of the falling bombs. At last it’s over and they hear the All Clear. ‘We have survived’, thinks Emma, ‘but for what?”
For what is what the rest of the novel explores. Emma falls in love with Sylvia, her supervisor, an older, experienced woman, with whom she spends an astonishing, eye-opening, wonderfully fulfilling night, only to lose her new found lover in a raid. Audrey realises that she isn’t in love with Richard, and breaks off her engagement. Florence struggles to accept her loss and make the most of her family and her loving, loyal husband. Little Maisie gets separated from her mother during a raid and is rescued by Audrey. But in truth all these things, though valuable and important, have to take second place to the vividness of the blitz itself, terrifying but sometimes terrifyingly beautiful, as Audrey herself observes when, looking up at the sky, she sees the magnesium flares, dropped to guide the firebombs,
bursting into incandescent light, hanging there over the city like chandeliers: you can even make out the ghostly silken shapes of the parachutes themselves . . . The pilots are laying an incendiary carpet…
The novel is full of such vivid images, most rather less beautiful than the firebombs: the crowds of people fleeing the city to escape the raids, ‘Cars, carts, bicycles, perambulators, bath chairs … anything with wheels. The rag and bone men, the coke men, the auldfellas with their ice cream trikes’; the ‘bulging hessian sacks’ holding the dismembered parts of bodies; the houses with their fronts blown away, revealing walls glittering with shards of glass from broken mirrors; the homeless people who ‘you passed in the streets, some walking with purpose, some wandering one way, then turning and walking back the other. Others just standing’.
And lightly but tellingly touched on here is the reaction of mainland Britain to these events, most noticeably towards the end, when Winston Churchill telephones Sir Wilfred Spender, the head of Belfast’s civil service, to ask what he is doing to protect the statue of the unionist politician Edward Carson, which stands outside Stormont:
Sir Wilfred suggests to Mr Churchill that the large crater caused by a six-hundred-pound bomb about one hundred yards from the statue shows that no adequate steps can be taken to ensure its survival beyond removing it from its current site, but that current resources are being deployed to help remove the living from buildings condemned, and the deceased from the rubble.
I have read and reviewed several of Lucy Cladwell’s novels and short stories, including Multitudes which appeared in Shiny a few years ago, but for me this is her finest yet. I also interviewed her on my personal blog back in 2011, and she said some very interesting things about her writing process (see here) which would I think be as relevant now as they were then. She’s an important writer and this is an important book.
Harriet is one of the founders and co-editor of Shiny New Books
Lucy Caldwell, These Days (Faber & Faber, 2022). 978-0571371303, 288pp., hardback.
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