All the Beggars Riding, the third novel by Lucy Caldwell, demonstrates an impressive command of complex emotional narratives and a playfulness with the technicalities of truth and story-telling. Its predominant theme is that of families and their destructive secrets which echo down generations. It also asks if and how we might break free from the negative power of these generational secrets to end the cycle of despair generated by the decisions of our parents and grandparents. The novel is challenging in its structure and approach; it also concerns the nature of writing and the search for truth, and questions whether we can ever find that truth through or within narrative.
The novel starts choppily, with a two-page impressionistic section set in 1972 which references both Doctor Zhivago and Van Morrison. Indeed, the frequent referencing of culture – high and low – is a notable feature of the book and helps the reader ground themselves in a narrative that frequently shifts between the late 2000s and the 1970s.
The narrative then moves on to beautifully describe the reaction in the 2010s of Lara Moorhouse, the main protagonist, to a fictional documentary about the Chernobyl disaster. Lara is still reeling from the death of her mother, and the unresolved threads of her family history, most importantly the death of her father in 1985. Lara’s was no simple family: as she explains, ‘life was a whole tissue of deception and lies.’ The rest of the novel is an account of how Lara unpicks and makes her peace with these lies.
Caldwell tracks this process through two more sections. ‘The Memoirs of Lara Moorhouse’ is written in the first person, from Lara’s perspective, and combines her memories of events in her childhood with accounts of the present, including her recent and raw breakup from a long-term partner, who has gone on to marry and have a child with another partner. This part of the novel paints a fine picture of the despair that long-standing family trauma, betrayal and lack of understanding can generate. Lara is not a particularly sympathetic character; full of anger, she belies her profession as a community carer. As she works through her painful memories, however, the reader witnesses her revealed truths and we begin to understand why she is so unpleasant, particularly to her mother and younger brother.
Part of this section dwells on Lara’s participation in writing classes, as she seeks a way to work through her trauma. This is, I think, the weaker part of the novel. Although of interest to writers and the students of writing perhaps, it felt rather indulgent and distracting in the middle of the narrative, and is perhaps the only slightly wrong note in the novel. But, once we move past this to the second main section in the novel, ‘The Story of Jane Moorhouse’, we dig under the skin of the great love story at the heart of the narrative; that between Lara’s parents Jane, and Patrick Connelly. This is ultimately a sad and destructive relationship where everyone, apart from Patrick, pays the price for his selfishness and weakness – all in the name of ‘love.’
All the Beggars Riding is a finely written novel which packs a heavy emotional punch from a relatively slim pagination. The discussion on the nature of writing, narrative and truth may cause impatience, but this is a minor complaint. Overall, this is an accomplished piece which rarely hits a dud note and which stays with the reader long after putting the book down.