(Faber & Faber, 2016); pbk, £12.99
Lucy Caldwell’s debut short-story collection, Multitudes, is a book about growing up. The opening story begins with two sisters in the backseat of a car being driven by their mother through the Northern Irish countryside. The younger of the two girls is happily singing “The Ally Ally O”, unaware of the dark story behind the song; the elder, however, knows that the lyrics refer to the sinking of the SS Arctic, something she has learned about from the book, “The World’s Greatest Ever Disasters!” As the elder sister becomes increasingly annoyed by her younger sibling’s naivety, she thinks to herself: “She doesn’t know that there are places you never, ever go, not on purpose and not even by accident. One wrong turn, one wrong consonant; that’s all it takes.” By clearly placing the narrative during The Troubles in Northern Ireland, this kind of grisly, realistic observation from such a young character, particularly when juxtaposed against the carefree attitude of her only-slightly younger sibling, can seem rather shocking. And yet the message is clear—with age comes understanding, but the price to pay for such understanding is often an unpleasant loss of innocence.
Further references to The Troubles and Ireland’s relationship with religion appear throughout the book. For example, when the narrator of the story titled, “Here We Are”, is about to meet her new friend’s dad for the first time, her girlfriend tells her: “If he talks about church, don’t say you don’t go.” As the girls become closer, their relationship becomes romantic and they are forced to hide their feelings for one another from their parents and the rest of society due to Christian attitudes towards homosexuality. The narrator, enraged that she should have to keep such a thing private, tells her partner: “I don’t want us to have to hide … I want to tell everyone: my parents, your dad, everyone. I want to stand in front of City Hall with a megaphone and shout it out to the whole of Belfast.” Yet they never do willingly tell anyone. Instead, their parents find out themselves and force the girls to end their relationship. The story ends bleakly, as the narrator, now several years older, tells the reader that she and her one-time lover never got back together and are now both married to men.
In “Through the Wardrobe”, one of the most harrowing stories of the collection, Caldwell focuses on a young transgender girl whose parents refuse to accept her gender identity. While the girl wishes to dress and act like her sisters, her mum continually buys her male clothes; her sisters refuse to include her in their activities, and her dad repeatedly tries to masculinise her and becomes angry when she acts in ways he considers unmanly. The girl begins to feel as though her body is like a cursed statue: “it gives you nightmares, the thought of all the people trapped inside bodies that are theirs and not-theirs, bodies they can’t control or even move, victims of some wicked spell.” This story is written in the second person, which is something Caldwell does frequently throughout the collection, but here it seems particularly appropriate as “you” helps to convey the intense and distressing divide between the girl’s body and mind.
One of the things Caldwell does so deftly in this collection is to capture the angst and tension in the lives of her young female protagonists. This angst derives from their strong desire to exert their own unique identities while having to deal with an overwhelming pressure to repress that very same identity out of fear of being scorned and ostracised by their peers, their families, and the wider society surrounding them. It is a wonderful, heartfelt collection that engrosses the reader as much as it invites their empathy and compassion.