1941: Belfast endures four nights of the Blitz, seen through the eyes of two sisters, doctor’s daughters from a comfortable home. Emma, a First Aid volunteer, has a secret, passionate affair with another woman and yearns for her family to recognise that she can be capable and useful. Her engaged sister, Audrey, sees married life as a possibility to be someone, though that someone is defined only by her husband’s name. Neither sister is able to express her innermost thoughts to those closest to her; their mother too nurses an unspoken love.
Caldwell, in this, her fifth novel, captures the era in the smallest details: washbasins with rubber plugs, women civil servants sacked on marriage, tense train journeys back from neutral Dublin with purchases hidden from merciless customs men. This is how a historical novel should be: research evident through her characters’ eyes, in what they see, hear and touch, but never suffocating them. The bombardment of Belfast is told with unflinching compassion, contrasted with the brief near-idyllic remission of the family’s youngest child, sent into the country for safety. Apart from the boy’s encounters with refugees from the city sleeping rough, the war there seems a long way off.
Do not read this book seeking nostalgic pluckiness under fire, the stock in trade of so many WWII novels. There is dauntless courage here, yes, alongside grinding, debilitating terror and hopelessness; it was impossible to read this book without Ukraine’s agony in mind. A further modern resonance comes in Churchill’s fussing about a statue of a dead Unionist—when the need is to shelter the bombed out and retrieve corpses from the ruins. ‘Belfast is finished, people say. There is no way we can come back from this.’ But this is Belfast, and so come back they will.