‘All the Beggars Riding’ by Lucy Caldwell ****

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 2013.18164399

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.


‘Being Various: New Irish Short Stories’, edited by Lucy Caldwell ****

I was thoroughly impressed by Lucy Caldwell’s short story collection, Multitudes, which I recently reviewed.  I was therefore even more keen than I had previously been to see which stories she had selected for an edited collection, entitled Being Various: New Irish Short Stories.

When skimming through the contents page of Being Various in my local library, I found a lot of authors whom I had never heard of; this is something which I love in thematic anthologies such as this one.  Amongst the new-to-me names were quite a lot of authors whom I already know and admire – Danielle McLaughlin, Louise O’Neill, Belinda McKeon, Eimear McBride, Sally Rooney, and Sinead Gleeson are particular favourites.

419wqpvllsl._ac_sy400_In Being Various, Caldwell was keen to bring together contributors from Northern Ireland and the Republic, all of whom have been published since the Good Friday Agreement.  The stories here have been specially commissioned for this anthology, and therefore cannot be found anywhere else.  In her introduction, Caldwell comments: ‘Ireland is going through a golden age of writing: that has never been more apparent.  I wanted to capture something of the energy of this explosion, in all its variousness…  Writers who are truly the inheritors of Bowen and O’Faolain, telling twenty-first-century stories with effortless elegance and grace.’

Caldwell goes on to reflect: ‘I thought about how far Ireland has come in my lifetime and how far it has to go.’ She wanted to highlight this, and welcomed tales of ‘subjects that have long been unspoken or dismissed or taboo, with a ferocity and unsentimentality that’s breathtaking.’  Indeed, the stories deal with a lot of pivotal and topical themes – puberty, separation, change, eating disorders, death; what it means to belong, and to grow up, and to feel.

There is some really beautiful writing to be found within Being Various.  In ‘A Partial List of the Saved’, for instance, author Danielle McLaughlin writes: ‘The last time they’d travelled this road it had been summertime, not a dull day like this one, but a glorious day with the sun beating down… and bodies, eerily pale, prostrate on lawns like pieces of salt cod left to dry.  Today the fields were shrouded in drizzle.  The light was otherworldly, silver on the distant surface of the bog lakes.’

I find Irish fiction entirely engaging, and this short story collection reminded me why.  There are so many moments of clear-eyed brilliance here; so many fully-formed characters; so much emphasis upon what makes up real life.  There are characters who move to Ireland and away, and some who return to it.  The focus of Louise O’Neill’s ‘Legends’ is a young girl with an eating disorder, her ‘waistbands skimming empty spaces where flesh used to reside, the number on the weighing scales decreasing every day’; Elske Rahill’s ‘Stretch Marks’ has at its heart a woman set adrift by her latest pregnancy: ‘The baby shifts under her skin, hooking a piece of itself into her rib – a hand or a foot.  It must be mid-afternoon at least.  Thursday afternoon.  Beside the bed, two slices of toast have cooled and warped.’

Being Various presents a bold collection of stories, the majority of them realist, but with a little magical realism creeping in from time to time.  Every single story captured my attention, and I found a lot to enjoy here, and a lot to admire.  Even those which I did not like as much were very good stylistically.  The stories are so diverse that they can be read one after another, and still be entirely memorable.  There is striking imagery, and a lot of hard-hitting content, and I cannot recommend Being Various enough.


‘Multitudes’ by Lucy Caldwell *****

I have wanted to read Lucy Caldwell’s work for such a long time, and decided to start with her short story collection entitled Multitudes.  It has been praised by reviewers and critics alike since its publication in 2016.  Eimear McBride comments that these tales are ‘beautifully crafted, and so finely balanced that she holds the reader right up against the tender humanity of her characters.’  The Scotsman remarks that the collection ‘feels like a truly unified work of art.’  Caldwell has won numerous awards, and was also shortlisted for the BBC International Short Story Award in 2012.

9780571313501The eleven stories in Multitudes largely take as their focus childhood and adolescence, and each one contains the concept of growth, rendered in different and interesting ways.  The lives which Caldwell captures here are described in the book’s blurb as ‘caught in transition between the in-crowd and the out, between love and loneliness, between the city and the country, between home and escape.’

I was immediately struck by the way in which Caldwell captures things.  In the story ‘Thirteen’, she writes: ‘Susan and I have been best friends since nursery school – since before nursery school, we always say to each other, in actual fact since Mothers and Toddlers in the hall of the Methodist church on the corner where her street meets mine.  I don’t remember that far back, only vaguely – plastic cups of orange squash and dusty, frilled-edge biscuits, the smell of floor polish – but I can’t remember, let alone imagine, life without her.’

Caldwell has such a realistic perception of how spiteful adolescents can be, and how elements of our childhood become inescapable in adulthood.  The concerns of her characters, and their actions and reactions, are so human.  In ‘Poison’, the narrator sees, years later, a teacher who caused a scandal at her school; ‘Killing Time’ presents a sudden impulsive suicide attempt; the narrator of ‘Chasing’ moves back to their childhood home, and finds very early on that this course of action is ‘not the answer’; and a lesbian relationship is hidden from everyone around the protagonist of ‘Here We Are’.  There is much exploration in Multitudes of female friendships, and the small toxicities which they so often hold.  Love, lust, deception, desire, and guilt have all been chosen as major themes in Multitudes.

Caldwell perfectly controls the vividly rendered physical environments of her stories, and often juxtaposes out-of-place characters into them.  In ‘Poison’, for example, she writes: ‘She had too much make-up on: huge swipes of blusher, exaggerated cat-eyes.  She glanced around the bar, then she took out her phone again, clicked and tapped at it.  She wasn’t used to being alone in a bar like this.  It was an older crowd and she felt self-conscious, you could tell.’

Caldwell creates such empathy for her wholly memorable cast of characters, and deals with a host of very serious subjects along the way.   The author has such a knack for writing plausible characters, and I found myself repeatedly unable to guess where the stories would end up.  Multitudes is such an absorbing collection of short stories, and one which I savoured.  I found myself pulled into each one of the narratives from their very beginnings.  Thought-provoking and refreshing, this is a collection which I cannot recommend highly enough, and I am now on the hunt for the rest of Caldwell’s books so that I can become absorbed within her writing once more.


The Book Trail: From ‘Oystercatchers’ to ‘Fred & Edie’

This Book Trail begins with Susan Fletcher’s fantastic Oystercatchers, and, as ever with this series, uses the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed…’ feature on Goodreads to show seven other interesting books.

1. Oystercatchers by Susan Fletcher 1925785
This is the second novel from highly acclaimed young writer Susan Fletcher, author of the award-winning “Eve Green”. Amy lies in a coma. Her older sister, Moira, comes to her in the evenings, sits beside her in a green-walled hospital room. Here, Moira confesses. She admits to her childhood selfishness which deeply hurt her family and to the self-imposed exile from the dramatic Welsh coast that had dominated and captivated her childhood; to her savagery at boarding school; to the wild, bitter and destructive heart that she carried into her adult life. Moira knows this: that she’s been a poor daughter, and a deceptive wife. But it is as Amy lies half-dying that she sees the real truth: she’s been a cruel sister, and it is this cruelty that has led them both here, to this hospital bed. A novel about trust, loss and loneliness, “Oystercatchers” is a love story with a profound darkness at its core.


2. The Glass House by Sophie Cooke
Following her expulsion from a private boarding school Vanessa, the middle child in a family of three daughters, returns home to the Southern Highlands to attend the local comprehensive. With both of her sisters away at school and her father working abroad this should be the perfect opportunity to spend time with her glamorous, autocratic mother. But instead of the idyllic life Vanessa craves she is dragged into a nightmarish world of secrets and abuse, violence and betrayal, and watches in horror as her mother self destructs in front of her. Only Alan, a childhood friend, offers Vanessa an escape from her unhappy life but will Vanessa find the strength to confide the secrets she has buried deep within her?


7694463. Sick Notes by Gwendoline Riley
Returning to Manchester, her broken home, Esther moves back to the flat she used to share with her best friend Donna. Surrounded by empty gin bottles, with her past life safely taped up in stacked cardboard boxes, she proceeds to turn her back on a ‘real world’ that seems meaningless and absurd. Instead she lives in her own head. Then she meets Newton, a care-worn American wanderer with a drinker’s face and an angel’s smile. Newton changes everything. But for how long?


4. All the Beggars Riding by Lucy Caldwell
When Lara was twelve, and her younger brother Alfie eight, their father died in a helicopter crash. A prominent plastic surgeon, and Irishman, he had honed his skills on the bomb victims of the Troubles. But the family grew up used to him being absent: he only came to London for two weekends a month to work at the Harley Street clinic, where he had met their mother years before, and they only once went on a family holiday together, to Spain, where their mother cried and their father lost his temper and left early.  Because home, for their father, wasn’t Earls Court: it was Belfast, where he led his other life …  Narrated by Lara, nearing forty and nursing her dying mother, All the Beggars Riding is the heartbreaking portrait of a woman confronting her past just as she realises that the time to get any sort of answers is running out.


5. The China Factory by Mary Costello 13636433
An elderly schoolteacher recalls the single act of youthful passion that changed her life forever; a young gardener has an unsettling encounter with a suburban housewife; a wife who miscalculated the guarantees of marriage embarks upon an online affair. And in the title story a teenage girl strikes up an unlikely friendship with a lonely bachelor.  Love, loss, betrayal. Grief, guilt, longing. The act of grace or forgiveness that can suddenly transform and redeem lives. In these twelve haunting stories Mary Costello carefully examines the passions and perils of everyday life and relationships and, with startling insight, casts a light on the darkest corners of the human heart.  What emerges is a compassionate exploration of how ordinary men and women endure the trials and complexities of marriage, memory, adultery, death, and the ripples of disquiet that lie just beneath the surface. With a calm intensity and an undertow of sadness, she reveals the secret fears and yearnings of her characters, and those isolated moments when a few words or a small deed can change everything, with stark and sometimes brutal consequences.


6. One by One in the Darkness by Deirdre Madden
A story about three Northern Irish sisters. It has a double narrative, part of which describes their childhood and shows the impact of the political changes and the violence of the late-1960s upon the people of Ulster, as the wholeness and coherence of early childhood gradually break down.


16225427. The White Family by Maggie Gee
When Alfred White, patriarch of the White family, collapses at work, his wife, May, and their three disparate children find themselves confronting issues they would rather ignore. Maggie Gee skillfully weaves a narrative that reminds us that racism not only devastates the lives of its victims, but also those of its perpetrators.


8. Fred & Edie by Jill Dawson
In the winter of 1922 Edith Thompson and her younger lover, Freddy Bywaters, were found guilty of murdering Percy Thompson, Edith’s boorish husband. The two lovers were executed in a whirl of publicity in 1923. The case caused a sensation, a crime of passion that gripped the nation’s imagination and became the raw material for Jill Dawson’s sensual and captivating novel Fred and Edie, a fictional account of the lovers’ romance and their subsequent trial, predominantly told through Edie’s imaginary letters addressed to her lover, “Darlint Freddie”. This is a remarkable novel, that brilliantly evokes the suburban world of 1920s London (T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, published the same year as the trial, runs like a leitmotif throughout the novel). Edie, viewed from the public gallery as “silly, vain” is a superb literary creation–sensual, intelligent, articulate and liberated, bitterly denouncing in her letters to Freddy a world that denies “that our love might be a real love, on a par with other great loves. That just because you are from Norwood and work as a ship’s laundry man and I grew up in Stamford Hill and read a certain kind of novel, we are not capable of true emotions, of having feelings and experiences that matter“.


Have you read any of these?  Which have piqued your interest?