The Mare grabbed me for the obvious reasons: a story about women being women, girls becoming women, and women relating to horses. C’mon… how could I not read this book? Not to mention the cover is gorgeous. But I am a fully developed reader of classic and contemporary fiction. Hence things as trivial as covers do not sway my opinion… I think.
All I knew about Mary Gaitskill going into this novel were the parting words of a coworker the day I left with the advance Galley clutched against my chest.
“Ooo, Mary Gaitskill. So that’s probably going to have a lot of weird sex, huh?”
Apparently Ms. Gaitskill earned a bit of a reputation. Now, I’m unsure if this reputation is deserved or if writing about unsexy sex in novels quickly devolves into being labelled an anti-feminist feminist… but ANYWAYS! Let me just say that my preconceptions were a bit off-kilter for diving into the world of The Mare.
At over 425 pages, this novel is a bit of an undertaking. I know that we live in a world where anything under 400 nets you novella status, and everything under 700 rarely ranks as award-winning material. Still, I’m an old school reader. Give me a 200 page novel with a perfect ending and I’ll talk your ear off about it for days. Weeks. Hell, I’m still extolling the virtues of Coetzee’s fabulous Disgrace.
But back to The Mare. Gaitskill’s writing is clear as glass, and what makes her fascinating to watch is the way the clarity can disturb as often as it clarifies. What we see we sometimes wish we hadn’t; what we learn we try to forget.
The story starts as a cliché and works backwards, which is risky business for the obvious reasons. How easy it would have been for Gaitskill to veer into boring, overdrawn or even, given the subject matter, offensive stereotypes. In my opinion, she drops the last vestiges of hokey by way of her brilliant characters. But only just. It was touch and go there for a while.
Gaitskill abandons chapters in favor of short, journalistic first-person narratives. Primarily, the book is seen through the eyes of the two main characters: Ginger, a 50-something childless ex-addict now retired in a small but upscale country community and Velvet, an 11-year-old Dominican girl from a very poor, largely isolated Brooklyn family headed by a forceful, single mother. At times, other characters chime in to give their opinions, but the story is tethered by the intense and at times disturbing connection of the two women at the center of the action: Ginger and Velvet.
The story starts with young Velvet convincing her volatile mother to enroll her and her younger brother in the Fresh Air Fund, a real organization that focuses on bringing low-income and inner city kids into rural communities. We follow Velvet as she travels to stay with Ginger, a visit which Ginger anxiously awaits by buying bacon and renting movies.
The first part of the novel unfurls pretty much exactly how you would expect. Velvet is surprised by the vastness of a land without skyscrapers and street corners, the nighttime silence punctuated by crickets, and the horse stables next door. Ginger feels a burgeoning love for the child that, she assumes, must be some semblance of “motherhood,” whatever that means.
But, as I said before, Gaitskill takes these trite foundations and begins to conceive an elaborate real, emotional (and emotionally corrupt) underbelly. As we follow Ginger and Velvet through the next few years of their life, we see their inner selves come forward in vain and pathetic glory. We see the insignificance of their connection juxtaposed with the closeness both attempt to preserve through the overwhelming challenge of poverty and wealth. Most pressingly, we see their malevolence, their manipulation of their surroundings and each other, and their general ineptitude to rise above their worlds.
In short, we see their humanity.
These characters glisten, like sweat on skin, and are mesmerizing in their failure. Gaitskill’s novel transforms from a story of relationships into a slow-burning page-turner based solely on the vitality she conjures within Velvet and Ginger. This speaks nothing to a whole host of other characters within their world, from a New Orleans 13-year-old transplant named Strawberry to a vibrant, perhaps psychotic, deceased sister, all of whom are just as riveting to watch as our leads.
At the heart of this novel is a horse, bruised and broken, which Velvet refers to as “My mare.” Her pronunciation reminds Ginger of “ma mere,” the French word for mother, an example of the type of linguistic symbolism Gaitskill frequently employs to great success. This is horse writing at it’s best. The horses talk to each other and to the women, they beat their hooves and wait patiently (or not so much) to be cleaned and talked about. They long for the outdoors and endanger the lives of those closest to them. The pulse of Velvet’s mare is like a heartbeat, drawing both women closer to the horse like pedestrians observing a car crash.
None of the characters presented here make easy choices, nor do they make the ones that we would have made. Their surprises mimic the true nature of knowing others, I felt, in that we know so little but pretend to know so much.
What I really loved about The Mare was the way that Gaitskill reserves most judgment. Instead, she leaves the characters to fight for themselves, which leaves the reader in doubt of the themes… wealth, child abuse, white priviledge, the immigrant experience. It’s all here. Gaitskill presents each theme as a piece of candy in a bag. They’re all good, so just pick one. But with each choice, we are reminded there’s an entire bag that we ignored… shame on us! I felt culpable without having committed any sins!
For that reason, Gaitskill’s new novel is a complicated one for me to review. It is fractured, slithery, poetic, terse, alternately precious or heartless, inclusive or condemning. What is there to say but that Gaitskill is a talented writer who has presented something unique in her new novel—real ambivalence. And I don’t fully know how I feel about that…