Lucy Caldwell tells Time Out why she set her latest novel in Bahrain
It is great that you are writing about Bahrain – so few Western writers do! Your novel is an exploration of faith in Northern Ireland and Bahrain, how it heals and how it can torment. Why did you choose to locate the novel in this country? I didn’t choose Bahrain – the novel did. That sounds ludicrous but it’s true! When I was seven years old my uncle took a job in Bahrain and, that Easter, we went out to visit him. It was a short holiday but a memorable one. I hadn’t thought about it in years but when I began turning over the first ideas for The Meeting Point, Bahrain started coming back to me. At first, I didn’t make the connection. The novel, at that point, was a glimmer of an idea about a minister’s wife who loses her faith – it was as vague as that. Then one day I found myself at home in Belfast searching through old boxes for photos of that Easter trip when I realised: the novel wants to be set there. I had no idea why. I only knew that it had to be. As I started to research it, it made perfect sense. Bahrain, whose ancient name was Dilmun, is mentioned in The Epic of Gilgamesh – it’s Paradise, the land of the gods, the place Gilgamesh goes to search for immortality. In ancient times, the island of Bahrain/Dilmun was a very sacred place – a necropolis, where people used to send their dead in boats to be buried. Some scholarship even suggests that Bahrain may fit the description in Genesis of where Eden was located. So it made perfect sense that my novel about paradise found and lost, about faith and love and temptation and betrayal, should be set there.
You spent time in Bahrain while you were writing The Meeting Point. How did the reality of Bahrain differ from your recollections of the country you visited as a child? And did this mean you had to change the role of the country in the novel? My memories of Bahrain were those of a seven-and-an-half-year-old child. Camping in the desert and shaking out our shoes in the morning for flesh-eating camel spiders; watching a train of camels crossing the sands; diving for pearls at King’s Beach; chasing lizards and racing bikes around my cousins’ compound. I had no idea what to expect as an adult. I was incredibly nervous going there, not because of what I might find, but because I had no idea what I was looking for! I was just chasing my intuition, letting the novel lead me. I hadn’t written a word of it when I went out there. My ideas evolved as I was there; my knowledge of the characters and the story grew with my knowledge of the place. So Bahrain is woven very intimately into the fabric of the novel; it’s not just a painted backdrop. It would be impossible to set the story, or transplant it, somewhere else: it’s infused with Bahrain; it’s in and of Bahrain. I hope I did the country justice – managed to capture something of it. Perhaps Time OutBahrain readers will let me know.
The Bahrain in the novel starts off as a slightly threatening and inhospitable environment and develops into a friendly safe haven as the novel develops. Was this your experience of the country? Not at all! That’s the experience of Ruth, one of the two characters we follow most closely in The Meeting Point. She’s hardly ever left her small village in Strangford Lough before, and so coming to Bahrain is literally, for her, arriving in another world. And, on the evening they arrive, her husband admits that he’s lied to her and confesses the real reason for their trip. She’s devastated, and scared – she can no longer trust the person she thought she was closest to – and the sense of everything being unfamiliar is no longer exhilarating but terrifying. My experience of Bahrain couldn’t have been more different. I think it is the most hospitable place I have ever visited. I was humbled, again and again, by the warmth and generosity of people who took me into their homes and shared their food and their lives and their stories with me; gave up their time to drive me around, answer my questions, entertain me... But a novel needs more conflict, more drama than that!
The Meeting Point is essentially an exploration of the clash of civilisations, the Christian West and the Islamic Middle East. How significant do you think this clash is from your experiences in the Gulf region, and from living with a Bahraini family? The novel may begin as a clash of civilisations but my intention was to move beyond that, to complicate things, to blur boundaries. I wanted to juxtapose Christianity with Islam not because I wanted to dramatise the clash but because it felt necessary to explore more than one system of belief. I grew up in Belfast at the height of the Troubles, the child of a mixed marriage, as it was termed – one parent Protestant, the other Catholic. The clash between those two competing religions and their associated ideologies was, in theory, as stark and dramatic a clash as possible. And I was, literally, an embodiment of that. So I have always been interested in exploring the meeting points, if you will, between things. Because what you learn, time and time again, in Belfast or Bahrain, is that people are people; they get on with their lives, with the minutiae of everyday living.
In the novel, one protagonist reflects that she’s glad she didn’t embrace the expat social scene, ‘because if she had had the distraction, the artificial whirl of that world, she might not have found this realer Bahrain.’ What, for you, was this realer Bahrain? And why is it so important for the protagonist to find it? ‘Real Bahrain’ for me, I think, is Bahraini people – their day-to-day lives, their homes, their stories – and I was very fortunate to have a glimpse of this. ‘Real Bahrain’ for Ruth is something different: in the passage quoted, she feels that she has succeeded in breaking out of her circumscribed world, with its prescribed rituals and modes of conduct, and experienced something true. It’s a passionate passage: she’s in love and everything else seems false to her. In finding the ‘real Bahrain’, she is discovering an inner core of herself, some depth of emotion that she didn’t know existed.
The novel is infused with Bahrain’s history, from visits to the National Museum to quotes from The Epic of Gilgamesh. You said in an earlier interview you found the Tree of Life rather disappointing. Was there anything during your stay here and your research that you found pleasantly surprising? Visiting the Tree of Life was disappointing from a personal point of view. I had remembered it as a pilgrimage, almost a whole day’s drive, and was expecting it to be incredibly romantic and spiritual. But you can get there in half an hour and it is underwhelming, to say the least. The graffiti, the litter, the vandalism... But from a novelist’s point of view the visit wasn’t a waste of time at all: I was so affected by this that it eventually became one of the most important passages in the novel, a turning point for the characters. The seven-year-old in me was disappointed that King’s Beach no longer gave out free soft drinks – that had been a real highlight of the first trip! But there were no other disappointments. I was thrilled to find that Bahrain has preserved a real sense of its wonderful history, which could so easily have been lost in the drive to modernise. That sense of the palimpsest of history, of different ages and eras and cultures co-existing, is wonderful for a novelist.
What was your most memorable experience from your time spent in Bahrain, and how did you use it in the novel? Neither of my most memorable experiences in Bahrain made it into the novel, alas. One was being bought, by Roopesh and Mohammed, two of the most beautiful saris I’ve ever seen. Another was being taken to a beauty parlour to have my hands hennaed, in a traditional Arabic style, alongside a young bride-to-be. I would have loved to write them in but they just weren’t part of the story. An image that I loved and tried very hard to use was that of a sheikh in full Arab dress in a traditional English-style fish and chip shop at midnight. Perhaps I should write a sequel... The Meeting Point is available now from all Jashanmal Stores. For more info, visit www.lucycaldwell.com.