Two years have passed since I moved away from Belfast, but I like to return as often as I can. If I can’t get there in person, I’ll visit it via the city’s literature. I’ve recently been enjoying The Tangerine, a new Belfast-based literary magazine that showcases an eclectic mix of poetry, short stories, artwork, and reviews. It is inspired by a line from a Louis MacNeice poem, “Snow”, in which the speaker segments a tangerine and is struck by “the drunkenness of things being various.”
Lucy Caldwell’s short story collection also credits MacNeice’s poem as inspiration. The eleven stories in Multitudes are an exploration of the frustrating and contradictory experiences of growing up, from sitting in the back seat of your mum’s car while your sister keeps singing “Ally Ally O” at you to being trapped in hospital limbo as you wait to find out if your newborn son will survive.
Multitudes‘s brilliance lies in its honesty. The stories are often quite simple, mundane occurrences – a delayed flight, teenagers giggling over a handsome teacher, a childhood friend moving away – but are nevertheless utterly devastating. You believe these characters, the quiet heartache they are experiencing.
Born in Belfast, Caldwell also makes her home city a tangible presence in her work. Most of her stories are either set in the city, or are in some other way connected to it. Northern Irish terms and phrases pepper her characters’ speech (including “you wee hallion” and the ever-so-delightful “Did you just boke?”). I’ve previously mentioned on this blog how rare it is to come across a book that unashamedly belongs to a place that isn’t London or New York, especially when you’re familiar with the place in question. Reading Multitudes, I found myself walking the streets of a city I called home for three years. It was a remarkably lovely experience – even when the subject matter wasn’t quite so uplifting.
Even if you’ve never stepped foot in Belfast, I would wholly recommend this collection. It celebrates the city but also transcends it, exploring a range of experiences that speak to people from all walks of life.
Multitudes – a few of my favourites:
Thirteen Caldwell pinpoints with excruciating precision how cruel classmates can be, when every action and comment is set up to be a humiliating joke that you can’t escape from.
Killing Time A young girl inexpertly attempts suicide without explanation. It’s the innocence of the narrator that draws you in, swallowing a few old paracetamol with water from the “slimy and mint-edged” toothbrush mug in the bathroom.
Cyprus Avenue Having experienced my fair share of delays waiting to fly to/from Belfast over the years, I could definitely empathise the (second person) narrator of this story, who bumps into an old classmate as she waits to head home for Christmas.