penny in a castle

A digital chapbook.

Horse Heaven

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Nota: If you have not read the book you might want to consider your odds that I have not given anything away.

As part of my summer bucket list I thought about reading a book completely out of genre for me.  I completed this goal – but completely by accident.

Two years ago friends of ours sold everything they own, and moved to a far away land. It was a grand adventure that I have enjoyed vicariously (she’s writing a book about it and I’m looking forward to it coming out!)  While preparing to leave, they gave away many of their possessions including a great number books – a wonderful gift for which I am grateful.   Among them was Horse Heaven by Janet Smilely.

I started to read it several months ago.  It has taken me quite a bit of time to read it. While I have finished it, it is only after many false starts and a great deal of frustration.  Admittedly I’ve read a few other things along the way as I frequently looked for other options when I became irritated with the book.

Jane Smiley is a Pulitzer Prize winner, so my expectations were bound to be high – both in terms of quality and complexity.

Certainly there is quality writing in the book – there are many clever ideas and narratives within it.  Certain chapters and passages I would even say are great.  I loved the idea of a horse mind-reader and the descriptions of how both the horse and its interpreter perceived the world.  However, the difficulty is that the writing is a bit hit and miss – there were some nice turns of phrases and descriptions, but not much that sparked or stuck in my brain.  The human relationships, while complicated, occasionally difficult and sometimes funny, did not seem any different from the ordinary run of the mill dram-ody.

The book also didn’t disappoint in the complexity department – although I would argue that the author was trying to do too much.  There were so many characters within the book that I could hardly keep track of them all (You know you are in trouble when the author feels you need a chart at the beginning to explain who’s who).  Each chapter was from a different narrative perspective.  I’m guessing that the author had hoped to have an epic, sweeping feel to the story. Instead, I felt I simply could not keep up.  Was I now at the part where the horse trainer was abusing his horses with the help of a corrupt vet? Or were we at the part where the wife of a horse owner was having an affair with a trainer?  The book could have been split into several  – and would likely been more engaging and satisfying.  The constantly changing narrative created a couple of additional problems – I would read a chapter, become mildly engaged in a story line or personality – and then abruptly be shot off in a completely different direction.  There seemed to be so many false starts and incomplete endings to the maze that when there was a crisis, it did not mean much. By the end, not only could I not keep the characters straight, I didn’t care about any of them.

And yet, despite there being may characters, and in theory many perspectives, the narrative seemed to be one big drone. The voice throughout seemed cold, clinical and matter of fact (even when the view changed to that of a dog or a horse).  This added to my confusion and also resulted in decreasing my empathy for the characters.

My other issue with the book was that the author seems to assume you know quite at bit about horse racing.  As an outsider to the sport, I don’t know anything about it. This meant that many of the basic concepts that the story arc is based on (such as stakes versus claims, betting procedures and other things) made no sense at all to me. Nothing was explained and a lot was presumed.   The only thing that struck me and was clearly understandable is that horses are delicate both physically and psychologically, yet are often abused and do not live very long.  While it is understandable that horse racing is dangerous, the drugging and doping and reconstructive surgery that is required is horrifying and mind-boggling.  The concept of a three-year old horse already being past its prime and likely to be neglected and abandoned, juxtaposed against the thousands of millions of dollars in horse trading was an eye opener.  Clearly nothing has changed since Black Beauty was written – the whole issue of animal abuse would have made fascinating discussion on its own.

In the end though, there was not enough that was interesting to keep and hold my attention though the exertion of maintaining interest in the multitude of characters and storylines.  I am one of those sorts of people who try not to give up on a book and finish it through the end, but in this case, I don’t think the pay off was worth the effort.

Final verdict:  If given the choice to read this book again, I’d have to say neigh.

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Written by pennyinacastle

July 30, 2013 at 12:42 pm

Posted in books

Tagged with , ,

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