Window into past

All the Beggars Riding

Lucy Caldwell

Faber and Faber, €15.40;Kindle, €9.65

Review: Karen Funnell

“There’s a phrase my mother used to use when we wanted something we couldn’t have. Beggars can’t be choosers, she’d say. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

Lara Moorhouse is preoccupied with trying to make sense of her past and how it has shaped her present and feels that she must write it all down.

She is single, childless, pushing 40, and grieving for her recently-deceased mother, Jane, with whom she had a fraught relationship and whose own life was full of pain and loss. She has very little in common with her brother Alfie and feels his children are forced to “endure” their aunt on mundane Sunday afternoons. Her only friend is an elderly man who she helps as a part-time carer and her sole outlet is a creative writing class that they attend together.

Lara’s beloved but largely absent father Patrick died when she was 12, after which she learned he had been leading a double life. It wasn’t just his work as a plastic surgeon in Northern Ireland that led to him being away from their London home, he had another family — a ‘real’ family with a wife and ‘legitimate’ children — in Belfast. And worse still, her mother had known and put up with it.

The first part is a little disjointed, but Caldwell’s pithy prose keeps us hanging in there. We are given snippets of Lara’s current malaise interspersed with confused memories. A family holiday where Patrick didn’t turn up until the fifth day and then left early after a row and missed her birthday; a ferry trip to Belfast where Jane, heavily pregnant with Alfie, discovers her nemesis is in the same condition; learning days after the event that her father has been killed in an accident and standing, unknown and uninvited, outside the church on the day of his funeral.

Lara is set on writing a story, she’s just unsure whose tale she is trying to tell. Whichever voice she uses, the narration is sharp, poignant and utterly plausible. A child’s blind love replaced by anger, disappointment, and hurt when faced with her parents’ fallibility; her mother’s desperation to cling to a dream and her father’s inherent weakness, his inability to make a choice.

The second part of the book recounts her mother’s life, told as fiction through Lara’s eyes, how she met and fell in love with a married man and ended up with a life on permanent hold.

We know there is no happy ending for Jane but we start to find some closure for Lara.

Gradually, she learns to accept, to hope, to move on and let the anger go. She meets her half-brother, finds a new job, and starts a relationship. Life starts to have some meaning in the present. There’s even a future. And the past is finally being left where it belongs.


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