Friday 8 August 2008

A Wee Review - Where They Were Missed by Lucy Caldwell

If you’re of the same school of thought as Declan Burke, who believes John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas can be classified as crime fiction, then Lucy Caldwell’s Where They Were Missed definitely deserves a place among the cream of the NI crime fiction crop. The first half of her debut novel is very reminiscent of John Boyne’s wonderful tale of a young boy by the name of Bruno. Like Bruno, Caldwell’s protagonist, seven-year-old Saoirse, views the world through the eyes of a child. Bruno, the son of a high-ranking German soldier, lives his life on the perimeter of a concentration camp, with no real understanding of what is going on there. Caldwell’s Saoirse is growing up in troubled East Belfast in the 1980s. We’re introduced to her at the height of marching season and all she’s really concerned about is the fact that she can’t play out in the street with the other kids, but is instead restricted to her back garden with only her younger sister as company. Like Bruno’s tale, there are hints of a less than happy family life filtered through a brain that doesn’t quite understand. And like Boyne, Caldwell displays masterful skill in relating to the reader as a seven-year-old.

Where They Were Missed tells us the story of Saoirse’s unhappy childhood; but for the most part, the protagonist doesn’t seem to realise that she’s living a pretty hard-knock life. Structured in two parts, we meet the seven-year-old and sixteen-year-old girl and get to know her inside-out through the first person POV Caldwell employs. The general theme revolves around secrecy. Saoirse is left in the dark about much of her mother’s history, and in a way her tale becomes something akin to an amateur detective story as she tries to untangle the web of half-truths and blind spots of her childhood and adolescence.

The version of the book I read included an interview with Lucy Caldwell. In it she clearly states that the story is in no way biographical. But I can see why readers could make the mistake of assuming it is. There is a palpable realness to the inner dialogue; as if this is a life lived by the writer. But Caldwell insists she experienced a happy childhood and that her mother and Saoirse’s bear no similarity to each other whatsoever. And thank goodness for that.

I love that the prose is infused with a subtle Belfast accent. Caldwell doesn’t go the whole hog as Irvine Welsh does in his work, but instead drops the odd word that gives the text a distinct hint of the North. One of my favourite examples is the use of the word “arenten” which is a common pronunciation of aren’t roundabout my neck of the woods. A lovely little detail.

So, yeah, Where They Were Missed is a tightly written mystery that yanks mercilessly on the heartstrings. Thank God I was raised to believe big boys don’t cry or I’d have been blubbing into my cuppa after reading the final paragraphs, making a holy show of myself in front of family and work colleagues. I’m definitely looking forward to more work from the honorary first lady of post-Troubles crime fiction. I hope she’s got more novels in mind, because that’s not the only form she writes in. She’s also a very successful playwright. And to fill the gap between When We Were Missed and her next book, I’ve landed a copy of Leaves, her play published through Faber & Faber. My wife has read and recommended it already.


Michael Stone said...

Nice review, Gerard. Tottering TBR pile be damned, I'll have to get this one.

Gerard Brennan said...

Cheers, Mike! Once again, the system works.


Anonymous said...


thank you for the review. Lucy rocks!!!

More female authors!!!!

I caught some of what you said about "Belfast Nights" in "Mysteries Beyond Borders". Boy, I'm really looking forward to that!!!

And I heard from Colin Bateman, no DC trip soon, :(

thanks again


Gerard Brennan said...

Seandra - Lucy does indeed rock! And she leaks talent. Another reason I'm proud to be Northern Irish.

I'm eagerly awaiting Belfast Nights as well.