It’s – it’s not literature, I’m not a writer. It was just a story I had to tell. On every single page of it I was excruciatingly conscious of how much I wasn’t a writer…The people, the places – they’re not even a ghost, here, of the real thing. But maybe you’ll read it, and…well. You’ll understand, or at least understand a bit better.
Lara Moorhouse, almost 40, an agency carer, decides to tell her story. Or rather, the story of her family. It is a year since her mother died and several decades since her father was killed:
…a freak accident, a helicopter crash in bad weather. Then came the revelations, and the reporters, and soon after that we had to move out of our home and into the grotty, ramshackle rooms on the North End Road.
For, we learn, that Lara’s mother was ‘the other woman’ and her and her brother Alfie were the product of a long-standing affair. Lara’s father managed to maintain this façade for such a long period of time as Lara, her mother and brother lived in London, while his wife and other children lived in Belfast. Their father was a plastic surgeon who did reconstructive surgery on those affected by bomb blasts and shootings at the height of the Troubles. However, he also had a private practice on Harley Street, carrying out cosmetic procedures; Lara’s mum was one of the nurses.
The story itself is really interesting; how often is the mistress’ child allowed to give their perspective? How often is the story of that of an affair and two families maintained over more than a decade? I thought the angle from which Caldwell explored the story was fresh and prevented something which could’ve been a clichéd tale from becoming so.
What’s more interesting though is that All the Beggar’s Riding isn’t just a story about an affair, it’s a story about stories.
Lara decides to tell her tale when two things in her life coincide. As part of her job, she accompanies one of her patients, Mr Rawalpindi, to his writing class. The result of this is that she is already thinking about writing and stories when a documentary is shown on television. The documentary, we are told at the opening of the novel, is about the Chernobyl disaster. It focuses on the story of a young woman, Nastasya, whose husband was a worker at the plant. Affected by the radiation, her husband of three months and seventeen days was given a death sentence. Nastasya nursed her husband as he died after the doctors and nurses had refused. When asked by the interviewer why she did it, her answer is simple, ‘Because I love him, is why. Because is what love is’. Lara draws a parallel with her mother and her choice of lifestyle and decides that writing her mother’s story will help her to understand it.
It’s harder to tell a story, though, than you’d think. As I said earlier, lives aren’t orderly, and nor is memory: the mind doesn’t work like that. 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.
Caldwell uses Lara’s inexperience to allow the story to be told in a non-linear fashion, framed by Lara’s comments about her own life and ability as a writer. These comments draw attention to the fact that this is a story, shaped by Caldwell, but more interestingly, it also reminds us that those who live, or are part of, a double-life are also story tellers. Lara’s father has told her mother and his wife stories; Lara’s mother has told herself and her children another story, and now, Lara’s telling herself and – she hopes – her father’s other children, another story.
All the Beggar’s Rising is a multi-layered novel which showcases Caldwell’s talent. On finishing it, I sought out her previous novels; I’m already looking forward to seeing what she does next.
Thanks to Faber for the review copy.
All the Beggars Riding was one of 2013’s Fiction Uncovered titles. From the website:
Fiction Uncovered creates the opportunity for eight British fiction writers (novels, short stories, graphic novels) to be part of a major promotion supported by retailers, and a major publicity and marketing campaign.
Last year’s titles were:
All The Beggers Riding – Lucy Caldwell
How I Killed Margaret Thatcher – Anthony Cartwright
Black Bread White Beer – Niven Govinden
The Village – Nikita Lalwani
The Colour of Milk – Nell Leyshon
The Heart Broke In – James Meek
Orkney – Amy Sackville
Secrecy – Rupert Thomson