Saturday, April 12, 2014
The Dark Horse - Rumer Godden
Both are part of Virago's series for children/young adults which they launched a year ago. I haven't read the earlier Godden's from this series which looked like they were intended for really quite young children but the first thing to say about these two is how gorgeous the covers are. They are exquisite, the sort of books that you have to pick up. I started with 'The Dark Horse' (nuns and racehorses turned out to be an irresistible combination) which brings me to the second thing I have to say - I have no clear idea of what makes a children's book. In this case I'm taking Virago's word for it but there's no child protagonist or anything else to make it obvious to me. My own reading career went from mostly Enid Blyton to the likes of Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie, and Terry Pratchett none of which are unsuitable for 13 year olds but are all just as likely aimed at 30 year olds. In short I missed out on that middle faze which is probably why the idea of 'young adult' fiction baffles me a bit.
'The Dark Horse' is apparently based on a true story, Dark Invader is a classic looking racehorse picked up in Ireland by a spoilt young owner and taken over to England, he performs well in his first race but disappoints after that and is consequently sold to an Indian owner and shipped out to Calcutta where he becomes a favourite with the crowd and turns around his fortunes, then just before the biggest race of the season he disappears. He's found in the nick of time taking sanctuary with some nuns but the question remains - will he be ready to race?
Godden (who I missed out on as a teenager, but have been delighted to discover as an adult) uses her horse tale to explore a number of other issues. Written in 1981 but set in the 1930's 'The Dark Horse' mostly deals with issues of redemption and prejudice. Dark Invader's new owner is a Mr Leventine, he may be Jewish, he's definitely an outsider despite his impressive wealth, it seems it's not easy to buy your way into Calcutta society. His trainer is John Quillan a young man of excellent family who gave up a promising career in the army when he married a Eurasian woman. This marriage has estranged him from his family, also bars him from Calcutta society, lays quite a stigma on the couples many children, and has generally made John extremely sensitive. Mr Leventine also imports Dark Invader's 'lad' an over the hill jockey by the name of Ted Mullins who has lost his licence to race, lost his wife to influenza, and has a drink problem to boot. Finally there are the nuns, sisters of poverty who do their best to help Calcutta's many poor headed up by the enigmatic sister Morag who is determined to do what she can to help the needy. Add to all that wonderfully evocative descriptions of Calcutta and its racing scene and then wonder at how it's all packed into a couple of hundred pages.
In the end all the characters who need redemption find it - Leventine who has always been generous in his way learns the satisfaction of charity, Mullins finds a purpose he lost when his wife died, and Quillan - who's marriage is happy despite what it cost him - finds people who will accepts his family despite their mixed race heritage. The nuns also get what they need (after observing that god helps those who help themselves).
I think this is a great book for younger and older readers alike. It doesn't have that element of quite dark, often violent, sexuality that can make some of Godden's other books so disturbing, and that along with the happy endings and moral certainties are perhaps what marks it out as a children's book but it truly does cross over.