BACK in March, Doctor David Rhodes sent a letter of complaint to the Radio Times. “Yet again,” he wrote, “Northern Ireland – and Belfast in particular – is at the centre of bloody contemporary crime dramas.” He was writing in particular about James Nesbitt’s Troubles-inflected police series, Bloodlands, which included the odd petrol bomb, but he also threw in Marcella and Line of Duty for good measure. “Northern Ireland is simply not like this!” he argued.

A few weeks later, parts of the province saw the worst rioting for years as loyalists protested the Northern Ireland Protocol. Sometimes, Northern Ireland is exactly like this. Still, Dr Rhodes did have a point. Northern Ireland has more stories to tell than the ones we are so often offered.

Lucy Caldwell could tell him some. The Belfast-born, London-based writer has written two slim volumes of short stories, Multitudes and now Intimacies, which offer a different vision of Northern Ireland, one not blind to history (which, let’s face, is not even necessarily history), but also aware of other narratives, one that recognises how Northern Ireland has changed and how it hasn’t.

Multitudes, her first book of short stories, which followed three novels, is set in 1990s Belfast, the city Caldwell lived in as a teenager. Now, in her new book Intimacies, her characters are older. They live in Belfast or, as she does, in London, but they are all still marked by their Northern Irishness, or by Northern Ireland itself. In Mayday a young woman, a student, sends away for pills to induce an abortion. It’s a story about choices and regrets and fear that would not, could not, be the quite the same if it were set in Glasgow or Manchester, because the law and healthcare provision are different.

With due care and some caution, we could tentatively label Caldwell a post-Troubles writer. Her writing offers a different take on Northern Ireland than the generation that came before her. Through the 1980s and 1990s, writers like David Park, Glenn Patterson and Robert McLiam Wilson wrote fiction marked and twisted by what was happening in Northern Ireland at the time. Park and Patterson are still writing. But, in their wake, new voices – often female – have begun to emerge.

HeraldScotland: Lucy CaldwellLucy Caldwell

Caldwell was born in 1981, which made her a teenager in the 1990s when the tectonic plates of Northern Irish politics began to shift. “The first [IRA] ceasefire happened when I was 13. So, in my teenage years, I was able to go into town, go to the cinema, see friends, drink in bars, by the time I was 17, 18. That was possible in a way it just wouldn’t been if I had been 10 years older. I’m of that generation too young to vote for the Good Friday Agreement by a couple of years.

“I think that really did change things for my generation. Suddenly it allowed you the possibility of not being either/or.”

Although she published her first novel when she was still quite young, it took her a while to feel confident enough to publish the stories in Multitudes. Partly, she says, because it took her time to learn the craft of the short story. “But, also,” she says, “it’s very important to say that it took me all those years to have the confidence that those stories I wanted to tell about that place and time were worth telling.

“Because those stories of a young woman growing up in leafy east Belfast during the Troubles, they felt like they weren’t the stories that people expected to tell of that place and time.

“I remember having pen pals as a child – from Germany, Uganda, all over – and they would write to you really excitedly, ‘How many bombings have you seen? How many shootings?’ And you’d feel really apologetic writing back and saying, ‘It isn’t always like that’.”

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Intimacies, she says, feels like the older sister to Multitudes. And while it’s a book about “northern-ness” and what that might mean when you live in another country, it is also a book about pregnancy and motherhood and the female body. Caldwell has two young children now and her writing has tracked her own life.

"One of the things you really fear as a woman writer is the pram in the hallway. That as soon as you become a mother your artistic life is over, and I found it a surprise and a joy to find that was not the case for me.”

The result is a book of short stories that are sharp, resonant slices of everyday life. The last two stories in the collection – Devotions and, in particular, the title story Intimacies – are dazzling examples of how much meaning and emotion you can compress into a few pages.

Caldwell believes this is a good time for Northern Irish fiction. More and more new voices are emerging. “I’m currently mentoring a Belfast Muslim writer who came to Belfast from India when she was two and she’s 20 years older than I am, has three children, has always lived in Belfast. She never felt that her story belonged and, of course, that’s exactly the sort of story that we’re missing.”


That said, the Troubles haven’t disappeared from Northern Irish literature. But time and distance have allowed writers to look back at that time in a different, perhaps deeper way, Caldwell suggests.

“It’s interesting, in recent years you see things like Paul McVeigh’s The Good Son and Anna Burns’s masterpiece Milkman that you think, although those are both Troubles novels, they could not have been written in the immediate aftermath. Both of those books, especially Milkman, have the weight of an experience having been processed and having been lived with for a couple of decades. It’s not the sort of fiction that can be written in the immediate aftermath of having experienced it.

“When you’re living in a time that has a narrative like the Troubles it’s almost like it sucks all the oxygen from all the other possible stories. It took me years of writing to have the confidence to say that it’s just as important to tell other stories of that time and place, to complicate the narrative.

“There’s almost a moral aspect to it, too, to show other people are living their normal lives while all this other stuff is going on. It feels important to remember that.”

Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell is published by Faber & Faber, £12.99

Further Reading:

Sweet Home

Wendy Erskine, Picador, £8.99

Erskine was Lucy Caldwell’s teacher. “She was amazing. She walked into my sixth-form class. This was the time of Pulp Fiction. She had a bob with a fringe, peroxide, and she wore dresses and skirts over her trousers which no one did in Belfast in 1997. She really encouraged me with my writing.” Erskine’s own short stories are potent slices of everyday life in Belfast in all its grit, pain and humour.

The End of the World is a Cul de Sac

Louise Kennedy, Bloomsbury, £14.99


Just published, this collection of short stories which ranges across both sides of the Irish border offers a sharp, unsentimental look at Irish women, domesticity and how the past can haunt the present. Kennedy is originally from Holywood (the one in County Down, just to be clear).



Anna Burns, Faber & Faber, £8.99

A Booker Prize winning novel, Burns’s remarkable first-person narrative offers one of the most singular voices in recent fiction. The result is both thrilling and funny.

Where are We Now?

Glenn Patterson, Head of Zeus, £18.99

Since his 1988 debut Burning Your Own, Patterson has been one of the most consistent chroniclers of Northern Ireland before and after the Belfast Agreement. Hard to choose a favourite, though his most recent, Where Are We Now? sketches out how Belfast is still coming to terms with its recent violent past, while offering a little hope too.

Thin Places

Kerri ni Dochartaigh, Canongate, £14.99


Published in January, this memoir-cum-nature book looks back at the Troubles with pain and empathy and finds solace in the natural world. The author lived through the worst of times in Derry/Londonderry and this is a book that measures the impact both physically and psychically.


Darran Anderson, Vintage, £9.99

Another Derry memoir. Anderson’s book about the city, first published last year, is a charged family memoir that, like Thin Places, also explores the impact of poverty in marginal places.

Travelling in a Strange Land

David Park, Bloomsbury, £8.99

One of the most consistent – and consistently underappreciated – writers in these islands over the last two decades. His 2018 novel may be his best. It charts a journey from Belfast to the north-east of England, via Stranraer. It is a quiet book about life and loss that stays with you long after the last page.