On 18th September 2013, our shared reading group at Hydebank Wood Prison welcomed a much anticipated visit from Lucy Caldwell, author of the Arts Council’s ‘One City, One Book‘ choice, All the Beggars Riding. We have been reading the novel in our group for a few months now, a few pages one week, swathes of it the next. I read the novel aloud, as I do in all my groups, because we feel it better, that way. We savour the words, the sentences, the pauses and the gaps as they come to life through the simple act of being read (“no book ‘exists’ without a reader”, says Caldwell). And we talk. We pour our own experiences into our reading(s) of the text; the text projects for us a new set of experiences that we map on to our own, and we keep going with making meanings until, somehow, we have reached a dynamic, multi-layered reality of which we are all a part, because it is one that we, organically and unselfconsciously, have all helped to create.
The women have really connected over the book, and Lara, the central character and narrator, is regarded as a ‘friend’, someone we have got to know, and to whom we offer suggestions, perspectives and reassessments – all this for a fictional character. Yet fictional, for us, does not mean unreal – Lara, like us, has to face real-world challenges, has real emotional responses; she endures, regrets, celebrates. Feeling part of something is central to what we do in our shared reading groups and fiction, as Caldwell tells us, “allows you to live other lives”, to participate in the realities that, were it not for this or that, could just as easily be ours.
We are sitting in the prison library, and Lucy has said hello to everyone individually. When she talks or reads from her book, she addressees each person by their name – not their surname, as is the usual habit in a prison, but the names by which these women are known by the people that care about them. There are some questions, tentatively, at first, then the eager, excitable chattering gives way to an immediate, voluntary hush as Lucy reads from the opening page:
‘You’ve waited for this day, counting down each morning, as you wait for every second Thursday. Sometimes the waiting – delicious, unbearable – is almost better than the day itself, when it finally comes. The waiting, now, is like a bubble in your chest, and you are light and breathless with it’.
This beginning is almost an ending, too. It suggests a kind of validation of the life Lara’s mother led, that we as readers have yet to encounter: “You wouldn’t change anything, you suddenly think”.
In preparing for today, Lucy has included some material from authors that inspired her as a writer. Reassuringly unpretentious, she is comfortable with just leaving it with the women to read in their own time. One of the writers she refers to is Anne Enright, whose observations on literary openings and the worlds embedded within them reflect the simultaneity of beginning and ending that Lucy has just read. Enright puts it like this:
“The beginning of a good book contains the entire book: your job as a writer is to look at that first page until you see what you have done; to stare and stare until your fractal sentences yield their inner fractals and you fall into the world that you have made.”
‘Falling into the world’ is what we, as readers, do every week. A lady, for whom that world is very real, asks Lucy to talk about the inclusion of the ‘Chernobyl effect’ section, which takes up the theme of unconditional love introduced in Lucy’s reading; “I read this as Lara’s way of proving – to herself, maybe – that her mother’s love was real, that it was all worth it”, our group member says. Herein lies our beginning and ending.
Explaining why reading is so important and why we need to be able to exercise our intellectual and emotional ‘muscles’, Lucy tells us that “the more you read fiction, the better those muscles get”. One member of the group asks her about the writing process, where she gets her ideas from and whether she knew she wanted to write this particular story. Considering this “wonderful question” thoughtfully for a few seconds, Lucy responds with “you write, not because you have something to say, but to discover what you have to say”. For us, reading is a discovery, too. We read to discover a way of saying, of knowing – of living, maybe. To know what it’s like from somebody else’s point of view. Mr Rawalpindi, Lara’s creative writing classmate sums it up nicely – speaking about the writing process, and the need to make sense of the realities that Lara is trying to fix, desperately, into fact, he says this:
[Don’t get] hung up on hunting and pinning down exactly what happened. Like a butterfly collector, you know, those poor dead creatures stretched and skewered to a wooden board. Let yourself be free. Imagine yourself into your mother and write from her perspective, what it was like, being her. When you don’t know something’ – he tried to snap his fingers – ‘like that, just make a decision, use what comes most naturally to fill the gap, and if it doesn’t work, replace it with something, until the thing seems to hold together, to ring truest’.
‘Whatever rings truest’. That’s it. We read to discover our own truest truth.