Being Various was one of my favourite books in 2019, so I was intrigued to read more fiction from Lucy Caldwell. Enter All the Beggars Rising. Written from the point of view of Lara, a middle-aged woman with a chequered childhood, it’s a story about struggling to shrug off the ghosts of the past.
It’s a book filled with surprises and a masterful command of narrative structuring. It opens with a documentary of Chernobyl – both in the present and in flashbacks where Lara remembers watching it at a significant moment in her childhood. The main image in the documentary is the testimony of a worker’s wife who refuses to leave her husband’s side as he deteriorates even when the hospital workers stay away. Her reason? “That’s what love is.” For Lara, who has never really known love, this is strange, and prompts an examination of her parents’ relationship through a creative writing class she attends with one of her patients.
Painful recollections come in snippets – we learn early on that there was something stange about her family setup – she lived with her mother and brother in London while their father spent most of the month in his native Belfast. When Lara’s father dies in a helicopter, the truth begins to tumble out – they were not their father’s only family.
What really sets this book apart is the choice to have Lara tell a number of different narratives. It feels almost post-modern as we learn about her mother through Lara assuming her mother’s voice and writing a first-person account as part of her creative writing project. I say almost because this is a novel steeped in the visceral – the focus is unrelentingly on the characters and there’s nothing to trim.
In addition, Lara addresses the reader throughout, almost as if we’re embarking on this creative writing project with her as she makes corrections “no, that’s not right” she’ll say and make a correction, which only makes her character more endearing.