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Archive 2
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Horsing Around
Hazel Marshall

Jane Smiley’s 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.

Horse Heaven 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 let’s 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 latter half.

I may get hate mail for saying this but when I picked the book up, my first thought was, ‘hasn’t 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. Smiley’s book is literature, don’t 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 they’ve actually slept with.

It is, of course, unfair to compare the two. They live in completely different stalls even if their feed is the same. Smiley’s 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 I’m reading.

I 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 among them.

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. It’s 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

Paperback - 714 pages Faber and Faber; ISBN: 0571205607

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