A Brave Heart and a Bold Sword

Kirsten Kearney sees Lucy Caldwell's maxim in practice

Lucy Caldwell
CNI Podcast

Currently in rehearsals for the premiere of award-winning play Leaves and working on her second novel, Lucy Caldwell has established herself as one of NI's most exciting literary prospects.

In October 2006, Caldwell took another step into the literary elite as she was shortlisted, along with fellow NI novelist Nick Laird, for the prestigious Dylan Thomas prize.

At 25, Caldwell was the youngest of the six writers short listed for the prize. She has already notched up an array of awards, from the 2006 George Devine Award for Leaves, to the 2005 PMA award for the most promising playwright for The River, which premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2004. She then spent time as writer-on-attachment to the National Theatre in 2005.

Caldwell’s rise has the feel of an overnight success, of which the foundations lie in childhood. 'I’ve always wanted to be a writer,’ says Caldwell. She laughs as she explains how an exercise in English class - rewriting the ending of Jennifer Johnston’s How Many Miles to Babylon?  jumpstarted her literary career.

‘I wrote a whole new chapter. And mine was better than hers!’ She laughs at her younger self, and how she boasted ‘with all the arrogance of a 13 year old.’

Her Belfast-set novel Where They Were Missed has won literary respectability of the highest order, with Glenn Patterson’s words, ‘Here is a literary star in the making’, sounding prophetic.

Shifting between long days at the computer in tracksuit bottoms, and glamorous awards ceremonies, she is now working intensively on her second novel.

Moving from Belfast as a setting, her second is set in Bahrain. ‘The novel just wanted to be set there,’ explains Caldwell. ‘There’s so much depth to the country – did you know it is the geographical location of the Garden of Eden? And plays a major part in the Epics of Gilgamesh?’

Caldwell’s writing is broad in scope and theme, thoroughly researched, sharp and probing, with each word carefully measured and magicked into place. She is a writer and a Feminist, a playwright and a novelist. Just not at the same time. Both come easily to her - but she can’t skip between genres.

‘If I’ve been writing a lot of prose and switch to plays, I then write long elegant speeches that are dead on the stage. If I’ve been writing drama and go back to novels, the prose gets dialogue heavy and doesn’t work,’ she explains. Fortunately for Caldwell, she has time, space and freedom to do both.

A modern day sennachie, Caldwell is a storyteller in the Irish oral vein, with an ear for the voice and accent of her homeland. Having first heard her read at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August 2006, the instant shock of hearing the NI dialect out loud and out of place gives way, on reading her work, to an appreciation of the playwright within the novel, whose characters’ voices leap off the page and into the ear.

Her striking ability to harness the voice transcends accent, locality and age. It gives her child-narrator a voice, and an amusingly accurate one. In Where They Were Missed, the narrator Saoirse speaks as a 6-year-old, and then later as a 16-year-old. The timbre of each stage of the character’s childhood rings clear and true. The book begins breathlessly:

"Belfast is hot. Belfast is never hot. But Belfast is hot this summer. Daddy says it’s the hottest summer in Living Memory. Mammy says, It’s hot as hell. The air is sweaty, and it hangs in sheets; sucking the breath out of you, Mammy says, and it makes my and Daisy’s damp ponytails itch the backs of our necks. The Orangemen are marching at the bottom of our street, singing songs of men who died long ago."

Caldwell isn’t, and doesn’t want to be, a writer of the Troubles, or of the post-Troubles generation. In Where They Were Missed, the tragedy which overtakes the family plays out amongst the daily pressures of living in Belfast during the 80s and is shaped by it, but the centrality of the familial crisis is not overshadowed by the larger political tragedies.

The family, as Caldwell points out, is a good metaphor for the country, and it is often in the small and the personal, that the serious issues at large in a society can be most clearly seen.

'I think how maybe you can never really get away from where you came from,' she says. Saoirse puzzles this towards the end of the novel, and in many ways it is the confession of the writer. Caldwell says that she didn’t want to write about Belfast, but Belfast wanted to be written about.

Caldwell belongs in the ancient Celtic tradition of the dinnseanchas – of place lore. Place is as important a character in her work. It is not just a location, a setting, but is an active participant in the unfolding of the drama. This strength has helped her work to be recognised beyond the shores of NI, lending her writing an honest integrity of purpose and clarity of vision.

''Write with a brave heart and a bold sword', sound advice that Caldwell has been living by, and has been serving her well. It will take her to the Middle East in her second novel, into the tortured questioning of those facing suicide in Leaves, into Heaney’s images of the Bog Bodies and into as yet uncharted territory.

Her determination and her talent carry their own momentum. This is one woman who will never have her fill of stories and will never cease telling them.

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