A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Lucy Caldwell: The Meeting Point

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A mosque in Manama City, Bahrain

I interviewed Lucy Caldwell when she was 23 and I was 24. She’d just scooped the George Devine Most Promising Playwright Award for Leaves and seen her first novel, Where they were missed, come out to a warm reception, particularly in Northern Ireland — it was later longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. I was hugely jealous .

At the time of the interview, she was about 20,000 words into the first draft of a novel that was going to be set in Bahrain and was so warmly and openly enthusiastic about the whole thing that, for all my envy, it was impossible not to get caught up in the excitement of this new project and to want her to do well. She told me about a research trip she’d done to the tiny and (at that stage) little-thought-of Middle Eastern state said by some to be the site of Eden: ‘I needed to know about the quality of the light, how the air smelled,’ she said, beaming.

So when I heard at the beginning of the year that a novel by Lucy Caldwell set in – yes, you guessed it – Bahrain was tumbling on to the bookshelves, I knew I had to add it to my list. Nearly six years on from our coffee and chat on the South Bank, I was curious to see how the Eden Project had turned out.

It wasn’t an auspicious start. Coming to the book with Stella Gibbons’ demolition job on all things pastoral fresh in my mind, I found the polite lyricism of the opening depiction of rural Ireland tough to get along with. I was also put off my stroke by a review I’d seen in Tatler, of all places, which had called the book a powerful ‘evocation of ex-pat life’. Having read the novel cover to cover, I am delighted to report that that is absolutely not true – there is not a single G&T, cocktail hour or tennis party in sight (thank God). In fact, the main character, Ruth, remarks as much towards the end. Still, the fear that there might be left me in a state of nervous dread for at least the first 50 pages.

Luckily neither of these things was enough to drown out the quiet power of the story, which deftly leads the reader through the psychological unmaking and remaking of a girl and a woman caught between the clash of west and east, the world and the spirit. Raised as a Christian and married young to an evangelical preacher, Ruth finds her ordered life shaken up when her husband is posted to Bahrain, where, she eventually discovers, his mission to spread the gospel goes far beyond legal limits. At the same time, she encounters Noor, a troubled, half-Arab teenager who has her own reasons for not wanting to attract attention. Thrown together with Noor and her distracting cousin Farid, Ruth finds the boundaries of her world, creed and faith stretched to breaking point and beyond.

It’s a book that wears its six years of research and thought lightly. Shot through with the history of the region and its symbolism and mythology, not to mention the religious texts and teachings of both Islam and Christianity, it is deft and moving where the same material in another’s hands might be earnest and awkward.

From the acknowledgements, I see that Caldwell even spent time studying Christian theology on an Alpha Course at Christ Church Spitalfields, yet such meticulous attention to detail merely illuminates the story rather than bogging it down. There is no grandstanding here, no overweening desire to demonstrate intellect or knowledge. Caldwell doesn’t need us to know how clever she is. She merely wants to tell the story as best she can, delighting in the surprising connections and sudden vertiginous glimpses of significance that the things she has found out can add.

For some, the final stages of the story, in which Ruth oscillates between two courses of action, changing her mind repeatedly, will be a little frustrating. It reminded me of the strangely circular quality of the Mantel and a little of Joan Lingard’s After you’ve gone, which shares a similar ending, although that book is simply not in The Meeting Point‘s league.

Here, the circularity works because of the care Caldwell takes of the characters’ psychological development and the subtlety of each shift in their thinking – shifts to which every description contributes. We may seem to cross the same ground again and again, but it is always slightly different. By the end, I could even see why the opening portrayal of Ireland had to be as it did: conjuring a charming, yet ever so slightly staid vision of the world that matches Ruth’s own mindset. We look at the world, with Caldwell, through her creations’ eyes. And it’s this empathy and imagination, this great carefulness of characters’ thought processes and motivations, that make the book so engrossing.

The ending even made me miss my stop on the bus. After I’d clicked beyond the last page, I walked back along the route exhilarated, moved, and, yes, still jealous.

Picture by Gorski

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Written by Ann Morgan

April 26, 2011 at 8:57 pm

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