The saga of a family. A family whose life is linked to the soil on which they live and to the horses they breed. John Henry Forge raises his son Henry in the tradition of the white settlers of Kentucky. The supremacy of the white race is never questioned and on the family farm, the roles are clearly ascribed. Young Henry has a dream, already when he is just a small boy, he sees their land as the perfect place for breeding horses, but his father will hear nothing of this. When he takes over the farm, his chance arises and he becomes one of the best in the business. Yet, not only in horses is it important to take care of the blood line, he also chooses his wife with care and thus can produce the perfect white child: Henrietta. Like father like daughter does she grow up learning about the white race’s authority and rule. But times are a changing in the 20th century and creating the perfect race horse and the perfect daughter might not be enough anymore.
C.E. Morgan’s novel has been nominated for most of the important prizes for literature in 2016 and 2017: It has been shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017, for the Rathbones Folio Prize 2017, for the James Tait Black Fiction Prize 2016; it was finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2017 and won the Kirkus fiction prize 2017 and the Windham–Campbell Literature Prize 2016. It made the second place on the BBC books of the year 2016 list. Coming with so much glory, the expectations were high and the author easily matched them.
To say what the novel is actually about, is not that easy. Quite logically considering its length, there is a lot in it. First of all, the Forge family. The way the children are raised, the relationships between the generations but also between the spouses are interesting to observe in the way not only they are at a fixed moment in time – I really pitied young Henry when he wanted to share his dreams and visions with his stubborn father – but also how they develop over the time, here Henrietta plays the most important role. Even though she is a woman and as such by nature inferior to men, she can take over the male role and successfully lead the dynasty. But there is not much affection between the characters. It is especially Henrietta who realizes that she is lacking love and warmth and since she has never learnt how to express her feelings, she seriously struggles in getting involved with somebody. It is the women who struggle most with society’s expectations and their inner feelings – not only at the beginning, but also after the year 2000:
“The irony was bare and bitter and unavoidable: she was a woman, so she was a slave to life. Never before had she understood the brutal actuality of life in a body she didn’t choose. (…) Women invited death when they let men inside their bodies! Why did they do it? Love couldn’t possibly be worth it.”
Apart from the humans, the breeding of the horses plays a major role in the plot. I am not into horses at all and know almost nothing about these animals. But it is fascinating to see how close the characters get with them, how they observe details and can communicate with and understand them Also the idea of breeding the perfect race horse is quite appealing and interesting. Admittedly, would I have been asked before if I was interested in the description of a horse race, I certainly would have disagreed, but I was wrong.
Last but not least, a major topic is also slavery, resp. the formal abolition of it but the remaining prejudices in the heads – of the whites as well as the blacks. Even in the year 2006, equally has not been established. There have been improvements, but due to inheritance, a family name and the like – unfortunately not only in literature.
Apart from the plot, it is also C. E. Morgan’s masterly writing which makes reading the novel a pleasure. To tell the stories of the different family members, she finds an individual tone for them. John Henry is reserved, unkind and rather factual. Young Henry is full of childish amazement and effervescent until he becomes the head of the family. Strongest are the women, first of all Henrietta, but also her mother Judith and the housekeeper Maryleen and Allmon’s mother. She gives them a voice and especially thoughts they share with the readers which make them really come to life. She finds metaphors as well as comments by the narrator which sometimes even addresses you directly. The tone is serious at times, funny at others, sometimes sad, rarely joyful – just as life can be.