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Where They Were Missed Paperback – 23 February 2006
It is Belfast in the 1980s and Daisy and Saoirse are living through the hottest summer ever. The yard is too hot, their mother keeps flying off the handle and their father doesn't come home until late. Things aren't improved by the neighbourhood children who call them names and leave nasty things on their doorstep. Police sirens whine through the streets at night and Daisy asks why they can't have a mural painted on their house like the other houses down the road. As the two girls dream of ice creams from Antonini's and the characters from their bedtime stories, it's clear that their parents are struggling with each other and the political violence outside that is forcing them ever closer together and yet is also smashing them apart.
Then one day a tragedy occurs and life changes for good. Ten years later Saoirse is in Gweebarra Bay in Southern Ireland, living with her aunt and uncle, far from the sadness of her childhood in Belfast. She has managed to hook a good-looking local lad and is preparing for the school dance. But there is still an aching absence in her life and soon she will discover that her extended family is holding the secret to what really happened when she left her childhood home.
Where they were Missed is a moving meditation on the beauty and sadness of northern Ireland as political violence bleeds into everyday life but above all it is the story of an ordinary family, about children and marriage and how loss can help us grow up, but also can undo us.
About the Author
- Publisher : Viking (23 February 2006)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 240 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0670916056
- ISBN-13 : 978-0670916054
- Dimensions : 13.6 x 1.8 x 21.5 cm
- Customer Reviews:
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I have extreme difficulty rating this book. On the positive side, Caldwell is tackling an extremely tricky subject, she captures vividly a particularly troubled incident in Ireland's past, her use of Irish myths is entrancing, and quite a lot about the situation she describes is very believable. Hence I feel I have to give the book four stars.
At the same time, I must confess I didn't enjoy it much. I know that Caldwell is tackling a tragic subject, and a dark episode in Irish history - but there's a difference between tragedy and a rather dreary misery, which is what this book is imbued with (for a real contrast, read Deirdre Madden's 'One By One In the Darkness'), which manages to be both beautiful and honest about the horrors of the Troubles and their aftermath). Caldwell portrays a world in which all her characters are trapped in their own individual misery and can't really relate, and a dreary, ugly, stiflingly suburban Belfast in which the biggest treat characters can hope for is a trip to a local cafe for egg and chips and the like, or a box of over-sweet chocolates. The first section of the book is almost unbearable to read in its relentless misery. Nothing goes right for anyone - even a trip to the zoo to see the penguins and tigers ends in disappointment when the penguins' feeding time has passed and the tigers are hiding in their concrete den - and all the characters appear helpless victims of fate. It increasingly feels like being trapped in a nightmare.
The second part of the book is definitely more bearable - there's some lovely descriptions of Saoirse's relationship with her aunt and uncle, and of life in the Irish countryside. But again there's the endless, dispiriting sense that no one can ever relate - Saoirse can't really connect to her father, and her relationship with her mother returns to the nightmarish mood of Part I - and that everyone is trapped with no real means of escape from their stifling, limited lives - other than a very brief mention of Saoirse's ambitions for university. Saoirse's attempt at a love affair goes horribly wrong (though there's some interesting info on the Troubles in this) as does her plan to attend the school dance - and I'm not sure how redemptive the ending is intended to be either, despite some beautiful writing. I also felt that Caldwell could have made much more of the topic of religion in this part of the book, in which Saoirse, after an early childhood with non-church-going parents, has ended up with devout Catholic relatives. Wouldn't this have at least given her some interesting thoughts about God and the Protestant/Catholic conflict?
This book definitely shows that Caldwell was a promising writer from quite early on (she was in her twenties when this was published. I believe) and is an important chronicle of a very dark chapter in 20th century history. But Caldwell's belief that in order to write tragedy you must ladle the misery on as heavily as possible (not true if you look at a lot of the great tragedies) means that it's a depressing read. Caldwell took a more varied tone with her second novel, 'The Meeting Place' though I was sorry to see her recent short stories were also pretty repetitively miserable. Even tragedies need their more joyous moments!
The emotional cost of the Northern Ireland conflict has never been better described than it is here. As a child of the Troubles myself, born just as the Civil Rights marches of the late 1960s were sliding into civil disorder, and then into a "low level conflict" that threatened to become a civil war, I was profoundly moved from the very first page.
An original device in any novel, two of the key characters are not named until the closing chapters. This is an incredibly clever and yet an uncontrived thing, because if they had been named at the very beginning of the story it would have given the reader a clue as to their cultural background. As it is, we view Saoirse's mother and father from her point of view, through the eyes of a young child with no awareness of the complicated lives of adults.
I have no wish to include any spoilers whatsoever in this review so all I can say is that this novel is about a police family living in Belfast during the 1970s, the height of the Troubles. But because of the particular dynamic blend of the family, they do not have the benefit of the support network traditionally associated with police families in Northern Ireland.
Only someone who has lived through a time of conflict, long before the vocabulary of PTSD and grief counselling became the norm, can really understand what it was like to live in Northern Ireland in those days. People lost friends and family members to extreme violence and were expected to carry on as normal. Security was part-and-parcel of the simplest everyday errand. Secrecy was paramount in every section of society because of a prevailing lack of trust. With nowhere to turn for help and support, many people quietly imploded, and few citizens emerged unscarred when peace was finally declared in the late 1990s.
This is a powerful novel on every level. It has a searing sense of narrative truth, an edge-of-your-seat suspense and a poetic cadence that is quite simply stunning. Blame is absent, and also collective, which is just part of the paradox of the Troubles. An award-winning novelist and playwright, Lucy Caldwell has now joined Janet McNeill, Brian Moore, Martina Devlin, Stuart Neville, Brian McGilloway, Adrian McKinty and Eoin McNamee, as one of my favourite Northern Irish writing heroes.