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If Wishes Were Horses, Beggars Would Ride
on 9 February 2013
'If wishes were horses, beggars would ride' is an old saying, meaning that if all we needed to do for things to be better is to wish for them, then we would all be living the good life; and so the heroine of this novel, Lara, a care worker in her late thirties, mourning the death of her mother and suffering after a failed love affair, comes to the realization that wishing her life were different is of no use, and that for her life to change, she must do something to change it herself. Therefore, after attending creative writing classes, Lara decides to write her life story, in order to try to understand and to address issues from her past.
Moving backwards and forwards in time from the 1970s to the present day, the first part of this novel tells Lara's story as she sees it, and it is here that we read of how Lara grows up with her younger brother, Alfie, and her mother, Jane, in a small flat in Earl's Court, with her mostly absent father, a plastic surgeon, who spends a large part of his time working in Belfast, helping to reconstruct the faces of those who have been injured in the bombings. Even as a young child, Lara is aware that something is not quite right between her mother and father - although it is evident that they adore each other - but it is not until she is twelve years old that Lara learns the truth about her father's double life. Shocked and confused by her parents' situation, Lara turns away from her father, and becomes a troubled adolescent, and when her father is killed shortly after her discovery, she feels consumed with guilt. (No spoilers - we learn all of this early on in the novel and also from the information on the book's cover). However, Lara's feelings of guilt turn to a combination of anger and pity towards her grieving mother, when the family have to leave their home and move to a depressingly grubby and rundown flat on the North End Road; and it is here, Lara tells us, that she feels her childhood comes to an end; but this is not the end of Lara's story. Lara continues by telling the reader of how her troubled childhood has affected her adult life, and of how she attempts to address her feelings about her mother by writing the story of how she imagines her mother and father met and what happened to cause the difficult situation they found themselves in, and this appears as a separate section in the book as a 'novel within a novel'. Lara then tells us what she decides to do to enable her to move on - but is she really able to put everything behind her and make a new life for herself?
With a sense of melancholy running throughout the course of this story, ''All the Beggars Riding' is an involving and poignant portrayal of a woman trying to confront her past, and I found the first person narration effective in drawing me right into Lara's life story. The author's descriptions of certain areas of London, particularly Brompton Cemetery, where Lara and Alfie play as children, were very good, as was her depiction of Belfast, especially where she describes how, at the end of every road, even in the centre of the town, you can see the hills, purple with heather, almost as if they were close enough to reach out and touch. If I do have any reservations, I would say that I wasn't sure about the section in the novel where Lara writes of how she imagined her parents met and of how she thought the events unfolded afterwards, as I felt this could have been addressed in different way, which would have made this part of the story more convincing and cohesive; however, that said, I found 'All the Beggars Riding' a sensitive and absorbing story, which reminds us of how what happens to us in our formative years can significantly affect the way we approach life and how we relate to others, and of how if we wish to move on, we have to let go of the past and learn to put our trust in the future.