When the family secret is another family
Lucy Caldwell: a cool intelligence at work. photograph: tom routh
FICTION: All the Beggars Riding, By Lucy Caldwell, Faber and Faber, 253pp, £12.99
Lara, the narrator of the young Belfast writer Lucy Caldwell’s third novel, has spent most of her life living in the shadow of various lies. With the discovery of her father’s secret, her childhood ends abruptly, and a few months later he dies in a helicopter crash. For years, Lara had managed to get by in London, keep her job as a daycare worker and sustain a half-hearted relationship. Then the need to establish the humanity behind the facts forces her to look for the truth, however distressing the effort.
There is a blunt candour about this book that proves to be Caldwell’s anchor. A brief prologue addressed to the narrator’s mother is written in the softly lit prose of a romantic novel. It could cause a reader to turn away. But the story quickly moves on to a dramatic sequence about a television documentary charting the aftermath of the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in April 1986. Witnesses describe the agonising deaths of the initial victims, the men working in the plant: they bled to death from inside, vomiting their internal organs.
Lara, now approaching 40, remembers the tragedy because it had happened only months after the death of her father. The programme comes on one night, about a year after her unhappy mother died, determined to the end, even to the point of refusing treatment. In ways, Lara’s experience and, most particularly, that of her mother are also slow deaths. Caldwell’s prose is uneven, shifting between the factual and the overly descriptive. She also risks sending her narrator to a creative-writing course: Lara, lost and alone, puts all her energy into her patients, one of whom enrols in a writing class, and Lara accompanies him. Now, as an orphan, tolerated by her loving brother’s wife and children, she decides to write about her past. The outcome is the book.
A family holiday in Spain proves both the beginning and the end of the story. Lara recalls how the anticipation of the trip preoccupied her and her younger brother. It would be the first time out of England for them. But Lara had been away once before, to Belfast. When she mentions this, her mother reacts with a wild display of anger. (The memory of it causes Lara to make one of many references to her mother’s tiny frame.) She makes Lara promise never to refer to that trip again. The mother adds that when the children are older, she will explain.
Caldwell then reverts to a wordy, clunky prose that frequently undermines the stylistic balance of this novel. “It was she who looked old, suddenly. In less than the time it took her to say those words, she had aged centuries, millennia, and I felt a gulf between us, an abyss, that could never be bridged. A child should never see the depths of its parent’s sorrow. You can never forget it, once you’ve seen something like that: it is irrevocable.”
Lara is sympathetic, but her use of language is heavy and often awkward. Caldwell’s intention to create a character who is not a writer – although she is aspiring to write – leaves the narrative, and Caldwell, in a no-man’s-land. Yes, there is a story to be told; yes, here is a character with a troubled past and an uneasy present. Lara often apologises for her storytelling.