“It was impossible not to think that this was a film set. This was photographs of some war zone somewhere. Of Franco’s Spain. The fires, the tramlines wrenched from the road and pointing up in helpless angles at the sky.”
these days, by Lucy Caldwell, tells the story of two sisters living through the horror of the Belfast Blitz. Audrey and Emma are the daughters of a respected doctor and his stay-at-home wife. Their life is one of conformity and privilege yet they are straining against the constraints this imposes – the choices they feel they must make.
Audrey has just turned twenty-one and works as a junior clerk at the tax office. She has been stepping out with Richard, a young doctor working with her father, for almost a year. She imagines they will get married but understands this would require her to give up the job she enjoys and is good at. Her colleague, Miss Bates, just a few years older but already an inspector, talks casually of attending interesting lectures and cultural events that Audrey would love to experience herself, something she cannot imagine happening. Her day to day existence has always followed a staidly predictable trajectory.
“it was somehow unreal, so exactly had she pictured it, so much did she feel like an actor going through the motions of her own life”
Emma is the younger sister and volunteers at a First Aid post where she has met Sylvia, a decade older and living independently. Emma’s mother is concerned that such work will not help her daughter meet a man considered suitable. Emma struggles to talk to anyone in her family about the frustration she feels at such expectations. With Sylvia she discovers a life where she feels fully alive and authentic.
“she felt an irrational lightness come over her, a giddy sense of possibility: I can do, now, I can be, anything that I want to”
The story opens in April 1941 with the first air raid of the Blitz. The family take cover inside the cupboard under the stairs, a reaction planned but not prepared for. When they emerge their world has been inexorably changed. Over the next two months, as the death and destruction increase exponentially, they will be affected in ways previously unimaginable.
The horror of each air attack is brilliantly evoked. The terror, noise, stench and damage wrought to people and place bring to life the fear and dissociation required to somehow cope in such a situation. The Blitz Spirit is portrayed through looting and men trying to take advantage of young women removed from their more normal protective environment. This seemed more realistic than the saccharine version too often conjured from nostalgia.
Belfast suffered terribly over four air attacks that spring. In between, the sisters must deal with more mundane considerations. Audrey longs for Richard to show more passion, whereas his desire is to protect her. Emma comes to realise that her feelings for Sylvia cannot be proclaimed publicly.
Secondary characters are given chapters that skilfully portray how Belfast was at this time. There are deep inequalities: the poor living in badly maintained, cramped accommodation; the wealthy holding parties in their spacious and luxurious properties, promoting causes they are drawn to but rarely affected by. A trip to Dublin offers a reminder of the impact of customs checks on the recently divided island. Audrey and Emma’s younger brother, Paul, reminds readers how the media glorified the horrific war through propaganda. Women make choices that will be frowned upon, that in a future these may become accepted. Such depictions add depth to the lives Audrey and Emma must deal with.
What comes through most strongly is how searingly affected even those who did not lose a home or loved one were by what they encountered walking familiar streets now bloodied and razed. Adults as well as officially evacuated children left the city, an exodus that was frowned upon by the authorities as causing issues with where they would end up staying. There may have been ‘a grim, stoical sort of endurance’ but there was a mental price to pay.
The final chapters move key characters forward although the timeline left me a tad confused about the choice Audrey made. Having reread these sections several times, I formed an interpretation of what happened, although not its full effect. This was the only slight bump in what remains an impressively told tale.
The author captures the essence of Belfast brilliantly, including how it was regarded by the English elites.
A novel of wartime that focuses on character development amidst a powerful evocation of time and place. An affecting yet piercing story, beautifully written and fully three dimensional.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Faber & Faber