Chloe Caldwell’s debut first caught my eye on Twitter, not with a storm of insistent shoutyness but a definite buzz. I’ve learned to curb my enthusiasm in the face of unbridled Twitter delight but Women’s synopsis put me in mind of Sylvia Brownrigg’s riveting Pages for You which was followed last year by the slightly disappointing Pages for Her. Caldwell’s novella charts her narrator’s passionate, destructive affair with a woman much older than herself, ending just a year after it began.
Our unnamed straight narrator is living in her childhood home with her mother when she first meets Finn at a reading in the city. Both women are highly literary: our narrator is a successful young writer while Finn is a librarian, nineteen years her senior and long settled into a relationship. Three months later, our narrator moves to the city, determined to wean herself off her opiate habit, and begins a friendship with Finn which develops into an intense affair. Their time together is spent in each other’s beds while time apart is punctuated by a constant stream of texts and emails. Both are obsessed but Finn has much to lose. Our narrator slips into a self-destructive pattern which encompasses bouts of mania, tantrums and obsession. When Finn begins to extract herself from this relationship which has consumed them both our narrator becomes paralysed with grief until, just a year after Finn left a message on her Facebook page, she returns home.
Women is a short novella, a mere 130 pages – fewer if you consider its fragmented structure, some pages taken up with just a short paragraph. It could almost pass as a lengthy short story but for all that it took me far longer to read than I had expected. There’s a feverish intensity about the first-person narrative which makes it feel raw and confessional, all the more so given that Caldwell has made no secret of drawing on her own experience for this book. Her stripped down, plain writing emphasises the toxic passion of this affair which threatens to rip both women apart. We’re left wondering if this is love or simply the frisson of dabbling in a world about which our narrator knows nothing. Finn, it seems, is in no doubt, answering emphatically man when asked if she thinks our narrator will end up with a man or a woman. We know that our narrator is of the unreliable variety very early on: given the novella’s autobiographical element, let’s hope that means Finn is in heavy disguise.