Caldwell only visited Bahrain for a short period of time as a seven-year-old to see her uncle. But somewhere, deep down, the experience struck a chord.
A young author talks about her award-winning novel set in Bahrain
Lucy Caldwell has come prepared. As we start talking about her award-winning novel, The Meeting Point, she whips out photographs of herself as a child in Bahrain. There are the obligatory shots of the desert and a camel train, but the inference is clear. The young author from Northern Ireland, who set her second novel in that childhood stop, knows her stuff.
It transpires that Caldwell only visited Bahrain for a short period of time as a seven-year-old to see her uncle. But somewhere, deep down, the experience struck a chord.
"It was bizarre - I was feeling my way into a story about a Christian minister's wife losing her faith, and yet I was continually dreaming about Bahrain," she says. "And then my uncle's time there kept coming up in conversation. So I searched all day through boxes and boxes for these photos, and when I found them I somehow knew my novel had to be set there."
Caldwell's connection with Bahrain is, in part, why The Meeting Point is such a success. Initially it seems like it might be yet another tale of dislocation and culture-clash from white, western eyes. Christian minister Euan and his wife Ruth arrive in Bahrain wide-eyed and enthusiastic about a new beginning, but a shocking revelation forces Ruth to reassess her relationship with her young family and her faith. She strikes up a friendship with Muslim teenager Noor, an unhappy child of divorced English and Arab parents, which not only ends in obsession, but exposes Ruth to an Arab world she doesn't really understand.
But in switching between Noor and Ruth's perspectives, Caldwell never takes sides. And because she went back to Bahrain to do the research, the settings ring brilliantly true.
"I hadn't written a word when I went there, which I think was really good for the novel. It meant that I wasn't shoe-horning my story into a backdrop that could have been anywhere. I really wanted to understand this particular culture and not just be a tourist on a beach resort - I ate with Persian families, Bahraini families, Indian families, and they were so unbelievably hospitable. Bahrain became essential to the book."
So the first real crisis in The Meeting Point happens at The Tree Of Life - the supposed location of The Garden of Eden - which Ruth visits with Noor and her handsome cousin Fahid (who becomes a key figure in the narrative). She expects it to be a place of epiphany and great meaning, but, with its graffiti and rubbish-strewn vistas, it's anything but. Ruth weeps, her faith rocked. It feels authentic, raw.
"As a child I seem to remember the journey taking all day, and in my head I had it down as this place of great pilgrimage in the desert," says Caldwell with a smile. "And yet when I hired a driver, we were there almost straight away, and there was all this graffiti and stuff. And though as a tourist I was dismayed, as a novelist I was thinking 'this is brilliant'.
"It was funny, after a few days the driver said to me: 'Well, you've pretty much seen everything now.' And I'd forgotten how small Bahrain is. But again, that was great for me as a writer because it meant I could really restrict my characters' world. I could really create this sense of claustrophobia in the expat community."
This sense of being trapped is one of The Meeting Point's great strengths. Even when Ruth finally manages to break free of the windowless living room and the sentry-guarded compound she calls home - finding the real Bahrain along the way - she is still, in the end, bound by her own culture. Caldwell admits that she had to tread incredibly carefully when describing a world, and sometimes a religion, apart from her own.
"I felt a complete responsibility to get things right," she says. "Not just within Christianity or Islam but towards faith on a larger scale. The book took six years to write, and I think in part that's because it takes a lot of time to be confident in writing about another world. But I wrote it in Whitechapel, where you can hear the muezzin from the East London Mosque. There were Bengali kids running around my street, so I would talk to their mothers. I went to the mosque and I studied Islam. I think you have to if you're going to write a book like this."
Such creditable attention to detail can sometimes, of course, suffocate the most important part of a novel: its story. But when Caldwell won the £30,000 (Dh172,000) Dylan Thomas Prize last month - beating the likes of Orange prize winner Téa Obreht to the award for writing from the under 30s - it was described at the ceremony as "a beautifully written and mature reflection on identity, loyalty and belief in a complex world". Ultimately, it's a compelling story rather than a portrait - it's about people trying to navigate their way through not just faith, but life.
"Absolutely. Otherwise, you might as well read the Lonely Planet guide to Bahrain," she says. "I truly believe that fiction is the art of empathy, and you shouldn't be bound by your own age, culture, race, religion or period of time that you live in."
And to that end, she's fascinated to know how it might be received in Bahrain, or indeed the Middle East in general.
"The week it was published, it all started kicking off in Bahrain, so unfortunately all our plans to promote it there were shelved," she says, referring to the unrest in February. "I was so much looking forward to going there and talking with people - and not just English people - about what they made of it."
And what would she like them to get from it?
"Well, you know, so often Christianity and Islam, or the West and the Middle East, are portrayed as towering opposites, constantly clashing. But I'm interested in the grey areas, the ways in which people quietly come together. The book is made up of overlapping, contradictory worlds because I think, actually, we all live in them. So if people thought about that after reading my book, I'd be overjoyed."
The Meeting Point (Faber & Faber) is out now