These Days by Lucy Caldwell – #ReadingIrelandMonth23

I hadn’t really considered reading These Days until I saw it had been longlisted for this year’s Walter Scott Prize and as Lucy Caldwell is an author from Belfast I thought it would be a good choice for Reading Ireland Month.

I have previously read very little about the fate of Northern Ireland during World War II – Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture contains a very vivid description of the bombing of Belfast, but otherwise it has barely featured at all in any of my reading. In These Days, Lucy Caldwell gives this topic the attention it deserves, focusing on a series of attacks on Belfast that took place in April and May 1941 – the Dockside Raid, the Easter Raid and the Fire Raids. More than a thousand people were killed in these attacks and the Easter Raid alone caused the greatest loss of life in any night raid outside of London during the war.

This short but tragic period in Belfast’s history is explored through the stories of two sisters, Audrey and Emma Bell, the daughters of Dr Philip Bell and his wife, Florence. I have to confess, when I first started reading this book and saw that not only was it written in the present tense, the author had also chosen to omit speech marks, my heart sank. Not including speech marks seems to be an increasingly popular trend in fiction and maybe some readers like it, but it never works for me. I just find it distracting and annoying. However, I stuck with the book and settled into the story after a while.

Audrey is twenty-one and works as a junior clerk at the tax office. She is engaged to Richard, a doctor like her father, but is beginning to have doubts about the marriage. Becoming Richard’s wife will mean she’s expected to give up her job and conform to society’s expectations, and after witnessing the independence and freedom enjoyed by her unmarried friend, Miss Bates, Audrey is trying to decide what she really wants from life.

Emma is just eighteen and volunteers at a First Aid post, where she has met and fallen in love with Sylvia, a woman ten years older than herself. Emma has always been ‘awkward’ but when she’s with Sylvia she feels that she’s found her place in the world at last. Unfortunately, though, this is the 1940s so their relationship will have to remain a secret.

The Bell sisters, along with their mother Florence, are the main focus of the novel and although the writing style meant it took longer for me to connect with them than I would have liked, I did warm to all three of them and found each of their stories very moving as the bombings began and their lives were thrown into turmoil. We also get to know several other characters, from a range of backgrounds, who cross paths with the Bells at various points in the novel. I particularly loved six-year-old Maisie Gallagher, who becomes separated from her mother during a raid and has the good fortune to be discovered by Audrey.

The attacks were devastating for the people of Belfast, with so much destruction and loss of life, and as you can imagine the book is quite harrowing in places. How could it not be, particularly with images of Ukraine fresh in our minds? But it’s also a book I’m pleased to have read, especially as it has taught me so much about an aspect of the war I had known so little about.

This is book 10/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

10 thoughts on “These Days by Lucy Caldwell – #ReadingIrelandMonth23

  1. Lark says:

    Present tense and no quote marks? I’m not sure I’d make it through this one, though it does sound like a compelling story. I’ve seen one movie about these bombings in Belfast…it was about an elephant in a zoo and some kids who tried to keep it safe, and it was based on a true story.

    • Helen says:

      The writing style did make it more difficult for me to read than it should have been, but I found it very moving and compelling anyway. I haven’t seen the elephant movie, but it sounds interesting.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it’s a part of Belfast’s history that doesn’t seem to get much attention. I did enjoy this book, despite not loving the writing style.

    • Helen says:

      It’s so irritating and I can’t see any reason for it other than to make the book feel more ‘literary’. I still enjoyed it anyway!

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