Smileys Horse Heaven is a huge read. Not only in terms
of the size of the book but in the subject matter. She takes a whole
range of very different people, whose only common interest is horse
racing. This means not only owners, trainers and jockeys but also
punters, animal communicators and horse enthusiasts. Smiley takes
small snippets from each of their lives at various stages and weaves
them into the most extraordinary tapestry.
covers two years of the horse racing circuit in America, taking in courses
as far apart as Kentucky, California and Florida. She explores all aspect
of the circuit, taking us to stud farms, racing tracks and training
grounds, and examining the lives of the people involved. And lets
not forget that the horses, too, quite often have their say.
For me, the joy of the book comes not from the details about the racing,
or even the fact that it is about horses, but in the minutiae that Smiley
builds up about the characters. As each owner, trainer and jockey has
their own favourite horse, so too will you have your favourite characters.
For me, it was the incredibly amusing horse communicator Elizabeth Zada
and her partner, futurologist, Plato Theodorakis.
This book takes a while to get into, not least because of the sheer
number of characters. Fascinating though they are, I had to keep flicking
back to the front to work out, not only which state I was in, but which
job the person did. This can be quite confusing and also slightly annoying.
I was interested in some storylines more than others and it was frustrating
to sometimes have to wait for fifty to a hundred pages to find out what
happened to them next. But things do get better the longer you read.
The first quarter was a fast trot, which speeded up to a slow canter
in the second quarter before proceeding to a flat out gallop in the
I may get hate mail for saying this but when I picked the book up, my
first thought was, hasnt Jilly Cooper already done this?
Okay, I know her books were set in the show jumping arena and on the
polo field but still, the similarity is there. This feeling is considerably
enhanced when the first few pages of the book contains a list of characters
and descriptions, similar to the beginning of a Cooper book. Of course,
it is anathema to many people to even begin to compare the two. Smileys
book is literature, dont you know, while Cooper writes, well,
bonkbusters. Maybe so, but she writes them well and at least with hers
I can keep track of the characters if not who theyve actually
It is, of course, unfair to compare the two. They live in completely
different stalls even if their feed is the same. Smileys is more
in the literary genre and, in fact, the way she looks at how people
interact and the minutiae that make up their lives is in the manner
of Jane Austen. But the range of characters, their interaction with
animals and the wide ranging course means that, for me, the comparison
is there all the time while Im reading.
know nothing about horses, horse racing or betting and I would say
that I left this book feeling that I knew a bit more about it. I
could, at least, understand where horse enthusiasts get their passion
from. Smiley, as always, gets under the skin of her characters,
and it is easy to empathise with them, even the less likeable ones
I also found myself
laughing out loud at some of the incidents and, particularly, the language
that Smiley uses. How many horse buyers decide how much to offer for
a horse by the following method:
... Plato is walking around priapically naked as a kind of living
offering. Its very ritualised, but the sums of money offered do
keep getting bigger.
Get a rub down, something on which to feed and curl up with this book.
Whether you love horses or not, the chances are that by the end you
will have fallen in love with at least one of them.
© Hazel Marshall
- 714 pages Faber and Faber; ISBN: 0571205607
< About the Author
< Reply to this Article