Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell is a short story collection exploring the experiences of young women trying to make their way in this world. The cover design by Jack Smyth now seems particularly apt. These are particular women, yet these could be any woman; the stories detail experiences which are often both personal and, at their essence, universal. I was gripped, and felt connected, from the first story; a story about the exhaustion, the chaos, the trying to fill the days calmly, the emotional roller coaster, the sometimes overwhelming sense of responsibility, the snap decisions and the terrifying ‘what-if’ moments of motherhood with young children.
Most of the stories deal with motherhood (actual or potential), in its various guises and the theme is explored from various angles, swaying between the tender daily moments of all-consuming love and the drudgery, the weariness, the uncertainty, the fear and the heartbreak. There is our flustered mother in the opening story; a young student dealing with an unplanned pregnancy after an upbringing shaped by religious authority; a young woman crossing the waters from America on a mission to influence the people of Ireland in a pivotal moment of its history but who is carrying a secret or her own; the couple navigating the emotions that accompany the struggle to conceive; or the simple, domestic moment of a woman at home alone at night with her children, consumed by the fear that something awful is about to happen. These moments, and more, in our characters’ lives are explored and meditated on in a prose which is gentle yet probing, capturing what lies at the heart of these experiences.
The stories also expand into broader experiences of womanhood and motherhood, exploring socio-political themes including the rights women have over their own bodies or the access they have to their children in the cases of forced separation by individuals or the state; health scares that affect women in particular; the way women can be prematurely judged by society and in the media; or the young woman trying to make it in London, trying to settle in a new career, while letting go of past disappointments.
While the stories are often relatable on a grander scale, Caldwell’s skill lies in microscopically illuminating particular moments within these experiences; her characters are often captured at pivotal moments of their lives, where their lives are actually on the cusp of change, or where an alternate reality becomes momentarily possible, for better or for worse. The stories regularly shift into ‘what-if’ scenarios, illuminating how our minds are prone to diving here and there on tangents, into parallel worlds where alternate possibilities take over, before returning to place importance on the here and now. Caldwell’s characters are introspective, they worry, they question their decisions; often reflecting the particular difficulties and pressures of life as a woman, or as a mother.
Throughout these stories, the uncertainty of life is as prevalent as the potential in life. The stories take place around Ireland and the UK, and are often about people being away from home; the act of being in transit often creates a space for rumination, revaluation and realisation.
A standout story for me, from a strong collection, was ‘All the People Were Mean and Bad’ about a woman, on a long-haul flight with her baby and a child’s book, who meets an empathetic stranger who is to have a profound impact on her; a beautiful story that is so multi-layered, encapsulating so much in what it says and what is left unsaid.
This is a highly enjoyable collection, beautifully and evocatively written.
Book 1 reviewed as part of the #20BooksOfSummer22 reading challenge hosted by Cathy at 746books.com
Intimacies was published by Faber in 2021.
Born in Belfast in 1981, Lucy Caldwell is the award-winning author of three novels, several stage plays and radio dramas, and two collections of short stories: Multitudes (Faber, 2016) and Intimacies (Faber, 2021). Her most recent novel, These Days, was published by Faber in March 2022. She is also the editor of Being Various: New Irish Short Stories (Faber, 2019). Her full bio is available here.