This is absolutely not a book I would have picked up had it not been on the Bailey’s Prize shortlist. When it made the longlist, it was among those that I wasn’t bothered about, but once it got through to the shortlist, and particularly once I saw a few bloggers who I really trust rave about it, I decided that I would give it a try.
It’s the story of three generations of the Forge family, wealthy white Kentucky farmers, and later horse breeders, as well as the story of a black family, the Shaughnesseys, who are the descendants of a former Forge slave. It’s a look at family, legacy, race and class. It is also, notably, considerably less interested in horse racing than the cover or title would suggest. Horse breeding works because it has implications of class and wealth and race, and because it allows for a large number of stunning descriptions of horses’ physicality and cultural significance, but honestly it’s not a book about horses.
That said, if you don’t get on super well with lengthy, elaborate descriptions, you might struggle with this a little. There is an awful lot of plot going on, but it is frequently put on hold for descriptions, particularly of the countryside that surrounds the Kentucky farmhouse which is the primary setting. I personally loved those parts, but they won’t be to everyone’s taste. Even for me, who loves floral language and lengthy description, the descriptions of horse races got annoying. Personally I didn’t feel the tension of those races and I could have done without them.
Personally, I have an enormous amount of admiration for what C.E. Morgan does stylistically. She’s holding a lot of different balls in the air, transitioning between genres and messing with a lot of different writing styles, but she does it seamlessly. There are two sections in particular which are among my favourite things I’ve ever seen an author do.
The first is a scene between the young Henry Forge and his neighbour Ginny, which starts out with them talking in the barn in winter as Henry milks a cow and follows them as they leave the barn and walk down the road. What makes this pretty simple scene wonderful is that as they talk, the seasons change around them so that by the time they part ways, an entire year has passed.
The second is much, much later, in a scene between the black jockey who rides Henry’s best horse and Allmon Shaugnessey, the black groom who cares for her. The jockey, whose overwritten speech patterns might bother some people but I, predictably, loved, gives a version of the Queen Mab speech from Romeo and Juliet which is adapted to be about race and class. The Queen Mab speech is my favourite speech in Shakespeare and I adore what Morgan did there, but I do acknowledge that this is the sort of thing you either love or that you think is pretentious and ridiculous.
As much as there is a huge amount that I love about this book, I have to admit that I did not particularly enjoy the reading process. It’s hard damn work. It’s 550-odd pages, with the most ridiculously tiny font I have ever come across, and you feel every single page go by. It’s a rewarding process, but only once you’ve put it down and started to process it.