Title: The Mare
Author: Mary Gaitskill
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Date of Publication: 20 April 2017
Number of Pages: 439
Summary: Ginger is in her forties and a recovering alcoholic when she meets and marries Paul. When it becomes clear it’s too late for her to have a baby of her own, she tries to persuade him to consider adoption, but he already has a child from a previous marriage and is ten years older than her, so doesn’t share her longing to be a parent at any cost. As a compromise, they sign up to an organisation that sends poor inner-city kids to stay with country families for a few weeks in the summer, and so one hot July day eleven year old Velveteen Vargas, a Dominican girl from one of Brooklyn’s toughest neighbourhoods, arrives in their lives, and Ginger is instantly besotted.
Bemused by her gentle middle-aged hosts, but deeply intuitive in the way of clever children, Velvet quickly senses the longing behind Ginger’s rapturous attention. While Velvet returns her affection, she finds the intensity of it bewildering. Velvet’s own passions are more excited by the stables nearby, where she discovers she has a natural talent for riding and a deep affinity with the damaged horses cared for there. But when Ginger begins to entertain fantasies of adopting her, things start to get complicated for everyone involved.
This is a heartbreakingly honest and profoundly moving portrait of the nearly unbridgeable gaps between people, and the way we long for fairytale endings despite knowing that they don’t exist.
Review: There are so many reasons why this book shouldn’t work in the format that Gaitskill has written it. Each chapter continues the preceding chapter but is told by a different character in a completely different voice. The first chapters are primarily told by the two main characters but as the book progresses, extra voices are included. Instead of becoming a confusing riot of information, Gaitskill keeps the story flowing and the prose is so concise, there’s almost no moment where the reader is left behind. I know I’ve read books in the past where the story is told by two characters and it has been a mess. I have to confess, this is what I thought was going to happen with this book and it was wonderful to be proved wrong. It’s a testament to the skill of Gaitskill that she created this work.
The tone of the book is well measured and believable. There’s no moment where it becomes over sentimental or preachy. The emotional violence is well handled and the damage of each character is natural without being overwrought. I liked the manipulative Velvet and the way she created her relationship with Ginger. I liked that Ginger had awkward relationships with her mother and sister. Unlike some readers who state there was prejudice in Gaitskill’s writing, I didn’t find that. The author was almost completely absent from the book. It’s rare when you find a book that is written specifically for and by the characters. There was no Mary Sue element – no desire to prove how clever Gaitskill is compared to others. The story is so strong that it is a self-sufficient narrative and doesn’t need interpretation.
With all of that said, it’s not a book I would feel comfortable recommending to everyone. Adventurous readers, yes. My Mum? Maybe not. Regardless, if you decide to read The Mare you’re going to have an experience that you probably weren’t expecting.