Lucy Caldwell’s story, ‘All the People Were Mean and Bad,’ won the BBC Short story prize in 2021. Two years earlier, ‘The Children’ was short-listed. Both are available to listen to on BBC Sounds and both are in Caldwell’s latest short story collection, Intimacies – a collection which, according to the back cover, ‘exquisitely charts the steps and missteps of young women trying to find their place in the world.’
In his introduction to the Oxford Book of Short Stories, V. S. Pritchett writes: ‘the short story tells us only one thing, and that, intensely.’ Caldwell’s winning story – told in second person present tense – is about a woman on a transatlantic flight with her 22-month old daughter and the connection she makes with the man sitting next to her. It explores, as the title of the collection suggests, an intimacy, a moment. Within the limited timeframe of the flight and the couple of hours that follow on from it, ‘All the People Were Mean and Bad’ focuses on the intensity that springs up between the main character and her fellow passenger, bringing in her thoughts on motherhood and her marriage. What do you choose to reveal about yourself? And how real can such a connection really be? 'There is an artist whose work you saw once in a Whitechapel gallery: she had stitched to a globe of the world metallic threads representing one single day’s flights, then somehow dissolved the globe, leaving just the sugar-spun mass of threads, and you think of it now, of how it made you think, how fine the threads that connect us from one person, or place, to another, and how precious, and how strong.'
‘The Children’ is, in some ways, more technically skilful. Within the story there are three separate strands woven together to form a single coherent narrative: a young mother, who finds a lump in her breast; a 19th-century writer called Caroline Norton is separated from her children and seeks to bring about a change in the law; and the children of asylum seekers being taken from their parents at the US border. It feels very modern in its form, with tweets, -and bang up-to-date politically, as well as timeless regarding its subject matter and the inclusion of poetry.
My only reservation about Intimacies is its claim to be about young women in the modern world. Nine of the eleven stories are about motherhood, or near-motherhood, and to me it feels like the balance tips too far in that direction. Personally I am very interested in stories on modern motherhood, but I wonder if you weren’t, whether you might struggle to find what you are looking for within these stories. Having said that, there is no doubt that Caldwell, who is also a novelist and playwright, is extremely adept at writing in the short story form, and this is a heartfelt and beautiful collection.
Laura Besley is the author of three collections of flash & micro fiction: (Un)Natural Elements, 100neHundred and The Almost Mothers. She is also an editor for Flash Fiction Magazine. She tweets @laurabesley.
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