Book Of The Week: Openings by Lucy Caldwell

James Patterson James Patterson | 06-10 16:15

The Carver-esque story titles that make up Lucy Caldwell's new collection belie the lyricism at work in the author’s short story canon.

True, there is no Gordon Lish going through things with a red marker, but Caldwell’s stories have their own control, their own poetic register, which manages to say so much with so little. It’s as if the author is rationing a finite resource; time-limited, personal and treasured above all things.

In the first story, If you lived here you’d be home by now, the minor drama of a newly-adopted kitten opens into a wider narrative about the shifting dynamics of family, separation, illness, impending mortality and motherhood. The story’s tension derives from the kitten’s disappearance behind a skirting board after attempting to reunite with its mother, which - in a subtle piece of mirroring - Caldwell uses to springboard into a reflection about the protagonist’s relationship with her own mother. A woman who cannot abide the thought of cats, though she herself has been rendered unavailable; cut-off from her daughter in a nursing home on the other side of the world:

"I sat for a while on the kitchen floor, watching Bella and the kitten. They were so happy together. I thought it must be what heaven was like – a reunion, against all the odds, the seeing and holding and breathing-in of a loved one, let go or given up or lost."

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This deftness of touch does not mean that Caldwell’s stories are in any way lacking emotional depth or complexity. Far from it. Pieces like Fiction seem deliberately reminiscent of the desperation at the heart of Colin Barrett’s Homesickness or the justified outrage of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen; right down to the clever deployment of the second-person narrative which forces insinuation and empathy from the reader.

As one of the shorter pieces in the book, Fiction seems an outlier; deviating from Caldwell’s chief concerns which otherwise take motherhood, family and the emotional labour of women as sources for inspiration. It soon becomes clear, however, that Fiction merely seems an outlier because it is the only story that vibrates with the palpable anger of the author herself.

Caldwell understands that anger is a singular emotion, one that it is well-suited to a narrative about the predatory manipulation and possible sexual exploitation of a young female writer by an older male mentor. Fiction could be a manifesto or a warning, a rallying call for the MeToo era or a regretful calling-back to lost innocence.

The fact that it manages to evoke all these things at once is what makes it so engaging, and Caldwell’s ability to switch so seamlessly between emotional registers is what makes her a consummate master of the craft.

In Unter Den Linden, this sense of injustice quickly morphs into despair; at the world, at the cruelty of existence, at the desire to right past wrongs and make the current reality of living kinder and less foreboding. Written over the course of a walk through central Berlin, the story’s protagonist is a visiting novelist, whose encounter with a group of anti-war protestors triggers the memory of a cruel prank played against a high-school German teacher.

Though she may not identify as such, Unter Den Linden demonstrates Caldwell in as much of a poetic register as much as she is a novelist or short story writer; for the imagery here calls to mind the same queasy anxiety of Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal. "…what fathomless horrors of what minds, or Mind, could or would create all this," Caldwell writes. "And was it a surfeit of imagination, or a lack of it? And to what end this mutually assured deception?" The rhythm alone here is exceptional. Each clause as carefully considered and cumulatively brutal as any of the Belfast Group’s celebrated ‘Troubles’ poems.

Elsewhere in the story she writes:

"I thought how I’d read somewhere that déjà vu was the closest thing we have to time travel; a chance to revisit, or at least reapprehend, and so to correct an experience. It had seemed pretty whimsical at the time."

But Caldwell’s ideas—beautifully rendered as they are—are far from whimsical. These are stories of hard-bitten life experience, filled with Kantian angst, that plea for a corrective to the ongoing atomisation of human existence. And what, after all, could be more powerful than that? With ‘Openings’ perhaps we may finally find encouragement.

Openings is published by Faber

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