Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Dark Horse - Rumer Godden

I managed to mark the start of spring with a nasty cold, it was bad enough to keep me sofa bound for a couple of days which if I'm entirely honest I quite enjoyed despite the runny nose and throat that felt like it had been sandpapered - this had a lot to do with the unexpected arrival of a parcel from Virago books. In it were a brace of Rumer Godden's - 'An Episode of Sparrows' and 'The Dark Horse' which looked like just the thing to cheer up someone feeling distinctly under the weather.

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. 


  1. I also completely skipped "young adult" and I'm so glad I did! Most of the writing is so dumbed down that I think it would make it harder to transition into serious adult fiction later on. I still remember, when I was 13, asking my mom if I could browse in the adult section. She pretty carefully looked over the books I checked out, but I had free reign through the fiction. Some of those authors are still my favorites!

    I also felt like you about Rumer Godden. The first book I ever read by her was quite dark and I remember not enjoying it very much. I'll have to give this a try.

    1. The age difference between me and my youngest sister is 16 years, we're both avid readers but I think our reading options have been very different. For me reaching an independent reading age in the 1980's the children's books available were very much Enid Blyton, C.S. Lewis, Anne of Greengables and whatever was available form the puffin book club. Our local bookshop was good but small (same with the local library) and of course no internet, so when the childrens section had been exhausted it was straight onto genre writers and classics. For my sister in a post Harry Potter world where children's books were being taken a lot more seriously and with amazon to call on as well she had a much wider choice. I do remember thinking when she was in her mid teens though that she was reading books that I thought to young for her - but who knows. The important thing is that people get pleasure from what they're reading. The Dark Horse is excellent and well worth picking up, I generally love Godden even when she's dark, though she can, and does, really disturb me sometimes. You might also like 'China Court' and 'A Fugue In Time' which are both centred around houses and very good.

  2. Hayley I have just finished this! and am about to write my review of it, and An Episode of Sparrows, for SNB 2. I love Godden but had never heard of this one till Virago kindly sent it. I absolutely loved it. I have a grandson of 12 who I'm going to give it to, but like you, l think this is as perfect for adults as for children or YA. Good for Virago making this wonderful author readily available again. Thanks for the review.

    1. Very good for Virago, it's a charming book and one of the things I liked so much about it is how it defies easy categorisation. I wouldn't want to be the one who had to decide where in the bookshop it belonged. I liked that there was nothing particularly gendered about it either - just a good story with a raft of interesting issues attached to it. In some ways it reminded me of Huckleberry Finn who was on my A level syllabus - at 17 I was very surprised that it could be considered a children's book... Brilliant that it's back in print and available for a new generation of readers to appreciate.