TEXT review


A story of hope

review by Sandra Burr

 

Elaine Walker
The Horses
Cinnamon Press, Gwynedd, Wales 2010
ISBN 9781907090097
Pb pp239 UK8.99

 

What do you do when Armageddon strikes? How do you survive when all but a handful of the creatures living in your world suddenly disappear?  We find out something about the resilience of humans and animals in this book by Welsh debut novelist Elaine Walker.

An ecological disaster strikes while Jo and his family are holidaying on a remote Scottish island and their lives are changed forever. This is a tale of many parts. It is a post-apocalyptic story, a teenage coming of age story, a book for aficionados of magic realism and lovers of horses and a story of environmental disaster and recovery. It is also a text that subverts the dominant discourse of global economics, political disenfranchisement and bureaucratic domination.  Despite this apparent complexity The Horses is neither dark nor difficult and, unlike similar stories such as the deeply pessimistic Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, this is a story of hope. Very early in the novel this sense of optimism is signalled by the belief amongst the protagonists that ‘the world will get going again’ (15).

The author, Elaine Walker, is a freelance writer with a doctorate in English Literature. She lectures on writing for the Open University and the University of Wales. Walker is also a horse owner and lover. She writes poetry and fiction with an interest in magical realism, and nonfiction that centres on equestrian history and culture.

Walker clearly knows not only her subject matter but also the stuff of writing with The Horses exhibiting a true storyteller’s sensibility. It is beautifully crafted and sparsely populated by believable and (mostly) likeable human and nonhuman characters. The narrative follows a satisfactory trajectory that, with a few detours and worrying moments, carries the reader to a fitting end. Reading this novel is like eating a really enjoyable meal.

It is a beautifully constructed work, elegantly simple yet richly complex and this is squarely attributable to the author’s abilities as a writer. Walker uses a simple linear narrative that draws the reader forward. The past is gone and the family, trapped between the obliterated past and an unknowable future that ‘rolled away across the meadow leaving me behind’ (94),  can only concentrate on getting through each day and planning for the shortest of  terms – growing food, tending the animals, surviving the winter, and looking after each other. We experience this world through Jo, and this use of the first person narrator produces a strong sense of immediacy, placing the reader inside the unfolding narrative. The dramatic moments are well balanced, the difficulties the family faces are real and believable and an air of vulnerability permeates the novel as teenage Jo struggles to find a foothold in this shattered world.

Further tragedy occurs when Jo’s father dies as a result of being kicked in the head by a bull. His death marks the beginning of Jo’s transformation from ordinary teenager supported by a loving family to a key player in the survival of what is left of his family – 8-year-old Ginny, Jo, ‘a half-grown boy’ and Moth, his pregnant mother. It also marks the introduction of the magic realism elements in this story as Jo continues to hear, feel and see his dad’s presence ‘beyond the corner of my eye’ (51), and more amazingly, as a herd of horses arrives out of nowhere and stays to help the family. This event references Edwin Muir’s poem, ‘The Horses’, which Walker acknowledges and which addresses similar themes. It begins:

Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came…

Walker ensures the believability of these and other magical events by anchoring them in reality. Horses are her forte. It is evident from the way that Walker writes about them that they are as familiar as breathing to her and there is a beautiful description of riding a galloping horse that I wish I had written:

He went off like a firework with its tail lit, his back legs thrusting so hard to power his movement that I could feel his hip joints right underneath me. He was a streak of cloud, a hurricane, a bolt of lightning in a clear sky... (138)

It is Walker’s ability to express her empathetic understanding of the horse-human bond that allows the reader to believe that the horses actually do possess magical qualities. Indeed anyone with a deep knowledge of horses appreciates that there is more to these alluring creatures than the merely physical. The healing power of horses is well known. It is used, for example in a modality called Equine Assisted Therapy (EAP), a process that places troubled humans and horses together, with the horse selecting which human it will give emotional and psychological support to. In much the same way, Walker’s horses befriend and ally themselves with individual family members and soon prove to be integral to the family’s well-being, without sacrificing their innate equine traits. The humans, for their part understand that they must wait for the horses to get ‘a bit more used to us’ (19). The way they approach the horses and respect them, their tentative first rides and slowly developing bonds, are  much more believable than say, the way that writer John Marsden (Darkness be my Friend) has his teenage protagonists catching and riding, without saddles or bridles, a herd of excitable farm horses at breakneck speed through the black of night. Walker’s descriptions, even with the elements of magic realism, are infinitely more convincing.

Characterisation is another of Walker’s accomplishments. While some characters slide towards caricature (e.g. the menacing Phil) they are saved by Walker’s excellent ear for dialogue and her ability to translate it onto the page. Clearly Phil, a man with no redemptive qualities, is a metaphor for a world gone wrong, for the tyranny of technology and for humanity’s disregard for the natural world, and he serves his purpose well. Jo is equally well drawn – a child man who has bouts of anger and frustration, and outbursts that he later regrets. Complaining that ‘I want my life back’ (33) not only makes Jo more human and therefore understandable, it also captures the essence of what it is to be a teenage boy.

This work is marketed as general fiction; however it displays many of the hallmarks of young adult fiction which certainly broadens its appeal. Young adult fiction, for example often instructs its readers and Walker handles this with tact. The words of Jo’s dad guide him through the difficulties ahead: ‘Dad always said that no matter what stupid things humans did to each other, nature would come back just when you thought everything was over’ (45). Moth, who is also warm and likeable, guides Jo with a balance of discipline and wise words. When Jo rails against the things that threaten his newfound stability, Moth says: ‘It’s being tested, Joel, like anything that needs to be strong’ (184).

The cover design is both mysterious and attractive; however, if I have one quibble it is that the title lacks imagination and fails to indicate what this book is about. It might, in fact, turn off readers who think it is only about horses. The title may also be confused with another nonfiction book with a similar title written by Walker, Horse (Reaktion Books, 2008).

This book deserves a wide audience not only for its technical accomplishments but also for its message of hope in a bleak world. I wish it great commercial success.

 

 

Sandra Burr has a PhD in creative writing. She is an adjunct professional associate at the University of Canberra where she teaches creative writing and creative research. Sandra is on the editorial board of the new online journal Axon: creative explorations and she is the project officer for the ALTC-funded project Examination of Doctoral Degrees in Creative Arts: process, practice and standards.

 

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TEXT
Vol 15 No 2 October 2011
http://www.textjournal.com.au
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Kevin Brophy
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