Imagine that you grow up with a father, never knowing that his long absences from the family home are not due to his job, but because he is leading a secret life in which he is married with two other children. This is the premise behind Northern Irish playwright and author Lucy Caldwell’s novel All the Beggars Riding.
The story is told from the perspective of Lara Moorhouse as an adult nearing 40. She's coming to terms with the break down of her own long-term relationship and the impending death of her mother, and begins writing a kind of memoir about her childhood as part of the healing process. She tries to imagine what it was that her mother, a Harley Street nurse, saw in the man who wooed her but never married her — and why it was that she never confronted him about the truth of their relationship.
It’s a highly readable account, full of emotion — anger, sadness, joy, frustration and shame. Most of all it highlights the way in which one man’s hidden life has long-term repercussions on those he brazenly betrayed.
Despite the premise at its heart — a successful plastic surgeon has a “first” family in Belfast, but hides his “second” family, which comprises a mistress, a son and a daughter, in rather shabby digs in West London — it feels wholly credible throughout. Indeed the author, whom I met at a Faber preview event shortly before the book’s publication last year, told me she’d done mountains of research about men and their hidden families and what she’d discovered was shocking. The effects on the children, particularly when they discovered the truth, were what she found most disturbing.
My only quibble with the book is that the narrator constantly apologises for struggling to express herself, which wears slightly thin, but on the whole this is an engaging — and redemptive — story about family secrets and the power of love.