Lucy Caldwell’s third novel All the Beggars Riding takes its title from the saying ‘if wishes were horses, beggars would ride’.
Lara Moorhouse is almost forty and is struggling to come to terms with the break-up of her relationship and the recent death of her mother. Lara has spent her whole life wishing that the mysteries and pain of her childhood could find resolution. In this engaging and heartfelt novel, Lara tries to tell her story, in order to make some sense of both her own experience and the lives of those she has loved.
One day, she happens to see a documentary about the tragedy of Chernobyl on television and finds herself inexplicably moved by one woman, who, stayed at the bedside of her dying husband at the expense of her own health. Why would anyone do this? She replies,
‘because I love him, is why. Because is what love is’.
Spurred on by both the emotional impact of the documentary and the writing class she is taking, Lara feels moved to explore the idea of what love is by writing the story of her own painful childhood. Is love an acceptance of circumstance? A subjugation of the self for someone else?
In halting, insecure prose, Lara documents a young life marked by absence. Her father who was rarely at home in London, worked as a surgeon in Belfast and saw the family only twice a month. Why, if their father was a surgeon, did Lara, her brother Alfie and their mother, live in such a small flat? Why, when they went on holiday to Spain, could her father only join them for one day? In addition, why did her mother take her as a small child for a day-trip to Belfast?
Lara eventually comes to the slow and heart-breaking realisation that their father has another family. A real family – who live back in Belfast – and they are merely his secret family, hidden away in London and mired in shame. Before Lara can get answers from her father, he is killed in a helicopter crash, plunging the family into a life of poverty and humiliation.
The first half of the book is Lara’s attempt to document her life and to make sense of it through memoir. It is disjointed, halting and peppered with asides and tangents, along with apologies to the reader for a lack of clarity.
Even our own stories, we’re unequipped and essentially unable to tell
This can, at times, be a little wearing and jolt the reader out of the emotionally charged story, but serves to explore the idea that the truth cannot be discovered through facts, the truth lies much deeper than that.
The novel comes into its own when Lara decides to tell her mother’s story as a fiction and imagine the emotions and repercussions that come from living a secretive life. Lara comes to realise that this is the only way that she might be able to understand her parents and the consequences that their choices had on so many lives.
Fiction is the most humans and magical of acts – it is healing, restorative, exactly because it shows a way across these chasms; we can never know what it is like to be someone else, ever, except through fiction and this is exactly how Lara comes to terms with the choices made by her parents, and how they have impacted on her own life.
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