One of the things I love about the anthology “The Long Gaze Back” (which I read at the end of last year) is how it has tipped me off to so many great writers! I first read Lisa McInerney’s writing here before she won the Baileys Prize this year and I also read Lucy Caldwell’s short story ‘Multitudes’ in this anthology. I was immediately struck by the intense energy and emotion of this tale about the perilous days immediately following a birth when a newborn’s life is in danger because of an unexpected illness. This story has an amazing way of viewing this difficult time period in a broader context through titled segments while also conveying the heartrending fear the new parents felt moment by moment. It suggests the thin, perilous lines between one kind of fate and another in life. ‘Multitudes’ has now become the title story in Lucy Caldwell’s most recent book of short stories. I was delighted to find that the author’s other new fiction in this book expresses an equally exciting rigour and creativity.
Many of these stories focus on periods of adolescence or teenage years in their characters’ lives. These are periods of extreme physical, sexual and emotional change. Everything can feel full of possibility or like it is all coming to an end. As the narrator of the story ‘Poison’ states “there's a certain intensity that only a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old girl can possess.” Here a woman recalls her time in school when she became infatuated with a teacher who had married a former pupil after she graduated. The narrator worms her way into his life with disastrous consequences. What this tense story expresses so acutely is the new kind of power teenagers are imbued with in their final years before fully entering adulthood.
This power is something that can be used against other people or against themselves as in the story 'Killing Time'. Here the thirteen year old narrator spontaneously decides to try killing herself, but only takes a minor dosage of paracetamol. However, in her naivety she believes she’s truly in mortal danger. This sparks a fear in her for her life and is a process by which she tests her own limitations. She only learns the true finality of death when the family loses their beloved pet.
Loss on a greater scale is explored powerfully in other stories such as 'Inextinguishable' where a mother recalls a classical song her daughter urged her to listen to shortly before the girl’s unexpected death. It’s about the way grief sinks in and remains a part of us as well as the regret over missed opportunities for moments of connections with someone who is now lost forever. The spectre of a dead daughter also hangs over the story 'Cyprus Avenue' where a man flies from his new home in England back to Belfast to make the routine Christmas visit. During the journey he encounters an old neighbour named Nirupam which gives him a new awareness for the racial bigotry this man experienced as a boy. Nirupam also rekindles a sense for the life of the narrator’s deceased sister who Nirupam knew as a child and his memories restore a comfort to this family still silently and secretly grieving.
The tension between remaining and leaving Northern Ireland is played out in other stories as well. In 'Chasing' a young woman returns to Belfast after going to art school in London and feels caught between two states of mind. She questions the limits of what she wants. Another story 'Escape Routes' explores leaving in a broader way where a child discovers that there are different options in life outside the norm from a babysitter. The child is coached by this older boy in how to find secret routes in a video game. This symbolically shows that there are codes and signs we’re periodically given in life and that these are “the secret messages that people are trying to tell you, that are there to be read, if only you know how.” Where some people are intent on smothering your sense of self so that you feel like you can’t be anything other than who, what and where you’re born into, other generous people we meet can suggest ways in which you can be yourself more freely elsewhere.
This is a message which is expressed emphatically in the story 'Through the Wardrobe'. This story is narrated in the second person where "you" is a boy who once wanted so badly to wear a Disney Princess Belle dress as a six year old. It’s the point where he detected a difference inside himself and found “it's not outside you're scared of. It's something inside, and you can't explain it, but you know, just know, that in the dress you'd be safe from it.” This story urges the boy and all of us to hold onto our inner conviction. It shows that presenting ourselves as truly and authentically as possible is what’s right – even if our families, friends and communities tell us it’s wrong. It’s the knowledge that we are being true to ourselves which will see us through any adversity or attempts by others to diminish who we are.
Testing the fluidity of gender identity and sexuality is explored in other stories as well. In 'Here We Are’ a woman recalls her teenage passion for another girl named Angela in her school. Their romantic relationship builds to a point that feels exactly right for their development, but is abruptly cut off because of the small-minded religiousness of Angela’s father and the girl’s inability to turn her back upon him. It doesn’t alter the narrator’s conviction of what she wants as what was true in the moment of their togetherness won’t ever change. Another perspective is shown in the story 'Thirteen' where the narrator is trapped feeling she doesn’t know what she wants when her closest friend unexpectedly moves away. She falters through a number of drunken and misguided possibilities which only teach her to distance herself from her feelings in order to dampen their intensity.
The stories in this collection are beautifully framed by the first story 'The Ally Ally O' in which the eldest daughter of a family and her siblings are being driven around by their mother in a game called “Getting Lost.” This story expresses the fragility of life because calamitous changes can happen at any moment, yet there is also a strong sense of hope and opportunity to be found no matter what way you turn. These stories have a unique power to draw you into their reality and make you feel a part of it. “Multitudes” is a moving and sophisticated collection of stories that sing with deeper meaning.