Book Review: All the Beggars Riding

“Even our own stories, we’re unequipped and essentially unable to tell”

All the Beggars Riding, by Lucy Caldwell, is a tale told by thirty-eight year old Lara Moorhouse, an agency carer who has lived in London all her life. She is writing down her memories as a way to come to terms with how she was raised, and the effect this has had on her life since. What prompted the project was a television documentary Lara watched, on Chernobyl, made a decade after the disaster and focusing on survivors. Lara has been taking one of her patients to a weekly creative writing class where she listens in to the advice given. She finds that she learns a great deal about herself and her wider family by recreating their past selves.

The book is divided into sections that focus on: the inspiration for the story; Lara as a child; her mother, Jane; what happened next. As Jane died a year previously much of the narrative is an imagined account of events. Lara comes to realise is that all memoir is essentially fiction.

“it’s going to be impossible to get inside the past, to really be true to it. We can only see it from the outside, squinting back at it, and it changes utterly depending on the mood and circumstances and point from which we happen to be regarding it.”

Although trying her best to tell her story in a manner that makes sense to the reader, Lara struggles to write a linear narrative. There are too many interdependencies and unknowns. Children rarely understand their parents as people rather than in relation to themselves – and vice versa.

“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.”

Lara and her little brother, Alfie, lived in a flat in Earls Court until Lara was twelve. Their mother was mostly their sole carer as their father, a surgeon, worked in Belfast more often than at the private clinic in Harley Street that employed him. It drew in wealthy patients wanting ‘an Irish surgeon’ for the skills learned in Belfast due to the Troubles.

The summer Lara turned twelve her family went on their only ever holiday – to Fuengirola. It was not a success. The fallout from this was that Lara learned the truth of her parents’ relationship. Her father, Patrick, had another family in Belfast. When, four months later, he was killed in an accident, the Earls Court flat was sold by his wife and the Moorhouses were cast adrift.

Lara’s anger at her parents for raising their children in this way colours her subsequent development. In confronting her memories and trying to piece together why Jane and Patrick acted as they did she seeks closure but also understanding. All her mother ever told her was that she loved their father. Lara needs to unravel how and why their family set-up lasted as long as it did without change.

The writing is fluid and piercing, getting to the heart of easily fractured relationships between parents and their children. All are individuals yet rarely treated in this way within a family unit. Alfie has reacted to the same circumstances very differently to his sister. Jane and her mother also had a troubled relationship that proved difficult to bridge. Across the generations, concern and expectation hammer in wedges. When Lara tried to talk to her mother, just before she died, she was met with resentment.

“You’re trying to trap me, aren’t you? Trap me with my own words.”

Parents cannot fully know at the time the lasting impact their actions will have on their children. Children cannot fully know the personal factors at play that drove decisions made.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story, both its voice and structure. A gratifying and resonant read that makes me want to seek out more of the author’s work.

All the Beggars Riding is published by Faber and Faber.