I have been blown away by Irish author Lucy Caldwell’s short stories in the past, and have been keen to pick up one of her novels, to see how the form compares. All the Beggars Riding was the first which I picked up, as I was kindly gifted a copy for my birthday. The novel is Caldwell’s third, and was first published in 2013.
All the Beggars Riding focuses upon Lara Moorhouse and her younger brother Alfie, who grew up in London during the 1970s and 1980s. Their father worked as a plastic surgeon in Northern Ireland for part of each week, helping to reconstruct the faces of those injured in bombing attacks during the Troubles. He then spent a day or two in an exclusive Harley Street practice. When Lara’s father passes away in a helicopter crash, the truth about his life is revealed; he had another family, a wife and children, who lived in Belfast. Lara’s mother ‘was, in fact, his mistress’.
The novel marks Lara’s attempts to confront her past, in which she makes herself revisit ‘troubling memories of her childhood to piece together the story of her parents’ hidden relationship.’ In the present day story, Lara is thirty-nine years old, and is grieving following the death of her mother. Of this, she comments on the turmoil which she feels: ‘… inside, I was alternately blank and lurching with grief, thick and oily, like waves, that would rise up and threaten to swamp me utterly… People kept saying, time will heal, and in a terrible, clichéd way, it does: every day life pastes its dull routines over the rawness, although the rawness is still there.’
The novel begins, rather specifically, on a Thursday morning in May 1972, with one of Lara’s memories: ‘Early morning, say six, or half six, but the sunlight is already pouring in, through the curtainless window set high in the slope of the roof… You are standing, face upturned to the window, breathing in the sun. I can see you, almost: if I close my eyes I can almost see you.’ I liked the way in which Lara occasionally addresses her childhood self, longing as she does to retain some memory of who she was.
One of my favourite elements of All the Beggars Riding was the emphasis which Caldwell places on the unreliability of memory. Our narrator comments: ‘… lives aren’t orderly, and nor is memory… We make it so, when we narrate things – setting them in straight lines and in context – whereas in reality things are all mixed up, and you feel several things, even things that contradict each other, or that happened at separate times, or that aren’t on the surface even related, all at once.’ Later, she muses: ‘But it seems to me that in too many books people’s memories come in seamless waves, perfectly coherent and lyrical. Recollections come like that one just did to me, searing, intense and jagged from nowhere, burning bright when before there was nothing.’
The author certainly has a recognisable style; as with her short stories, she searches for the essence of her characters throughout All the Beggars Riding. One gets a real insight into Lara’s thoughts and feelings, and her discomfort with writing a memoir: ‘For one thing, it’s gruesome using real people’s lives, real people’s deaths, to try and explain something of mine, I know. The scales of suffering are incomparable.’
There is a lot to connect with within Lara’s story. She longs to capture a realistic picture of her past self in this, her exercise of memory. She probes into the past, often uncomfortably, asking a great deal of questions in her desperation to make sense of things. I admired the way in which Caldwell, through Lara, went in search of her mother’s story, piecing together the concrete facts and imagining her thoughts and feelings.
I am always drawn to stories about families, particularly those in which there is an element of dysfunction within the familial structure, and I am pleased to report that All the Beggars Riding did not disappoint. I was not as enamoured with the story as I am with much of her shorter fiction; Caldwell’s stories are perfect, truly. Here, as in her other work though, her prose is thoughtful, and her protagonist realistic. I did feel for Lara and her situation, her uncertain memories, and her fraught relationships with others. I must admit that to me, though, the ending of All the Beggars Riding felt too neat, and was not entirely satisfying.