Jan Carson and Lucy Caldwell
I am a great supporter of our local arts scene and am in awe of the achievements of two of the best. Local writers Jan Carson and Lucy Caldwell have both published new novels this year using locations from their birth to place their stories in. Living and working near to both of these NI locations makes me feel very close to each book, in particular Lucy Caldwell’s whose characters live and breathe round the corner from where I now live, albeit 70 years apart.
Jan Carson’s ‘The Raptures’ is based in 1973 in a fictional Co Antrim village (Ballylack) close to Ballymena where she grew up. She has drawn on her own experiences being brought up within a very close religious community, and the restrictions of the church denomination dominate the fictional family’s life, accepted and unquestioned by the parents but not so much by Hannah their young daughter. We can only surmise how much of this is a true reflection of the author’s real history but she uses this backdrop to introduce us to Hannah as the narrator of the story. The close-knit community is rocked as a number of children take seriously ill as a result of a mysterious illness. All the children are in Hannah’s class at school and there is suspicion amongst the community as she is the only one who does not succumb. Is it the family’s faith that is protecting her? There are echoes of ghostly appearances, superstitions and supernatural undertones that surrounds the mystery that makes this a riveting read, especially in the aftermath of our own recent pandemic.
Likewise Lucy Caldwell bases her new novel ‘These Days’ on the city of her own birth – Belfast during the time of the Belfast Blitz in 1941. She tells the story of two sisters, Audrey and Emma, the daughters of a prestigious doctor living in East Belfast. The dreadful and persistent bombing of the city by the Luftwaffe force both the girls out into the world– Emma is adventurous and impulsive, volunteering for the Red Cross and risking her own life regularly to rescue and help others, while Audrey is more drawn to the lighter things in life, stepping out with a young doctor by night and working in an office by day. The depiction of everyday life in the midst of such extreme destruction is keenly described, giving us insight into life – and death – in Belfast during the war. The writer delicately balances the stories between the two girls comparing and contrasting their chosen paths, the blasts and explosions of the Blitz peppering their lives as much as the ‘ulsterisms’ that are used to colour the dialogue.
The result is a novel that is as familiar as your Granny’s soda farls or Sunday roast dinner, as dreadful as the bombs and explosions in our own recent past and as fiercely human as every diverse relationship you will ever come across in today’s world.
'The Raptures’ is available from your local branch or by request here The Raptures
The Raptures has been shortlisted for Novel of the Year at the An Post Irish Book Awards along with ‘Trespasses’ by Louise Kennedy, ‘The Colony’ by Audrey Magee, ‘The Queen of Dirt Island’ by Donal Ryan, ‘The Marriage Portrait’ by Maggie O’Farrell, and ‘Seven Steeples’ by Sara Baume. The winner will be announced on Wed 23 November.