Monday, 3 October 2016


The Sport of Kings, by C. E. Morgan

            Henry Forge, Southern gentleman, is master of all he surveys.  Through iron-clad determination and obsessive planning he has converted the family farm of his ancestors, those hard men and slave owners who had trekked across the mountains into Kentucky looking for a new life 200 years before, into a premiere Thoroughbred horse-breeding operation:  his aim is to produce a Superhorse, an animal with beauty, speed, stamina and a mighty heart to win all the major horse races in the country, just as the peerless Secretariat had done so effortlessly and convincingly years before – it can be done again, and he is just the man to do it.
            Henry’s fixation on horses began at a young age when he saw horses broken in on the neighbouring farm;  unfortunately his burgeoning interest is not encouraged by his autocratic father, who believes that his only son should accept unquestionably that the Forges have always made their reputation and  considerable fortune growing corn;  there will be no deviation from this tradition – until Henry, whose hatred of his father is absolute, discovers a family secret so terrible that he cannot resist flinging his new knowledge into his unsuspecting father’s face:  Henry’s beautiful mother is having a torrid affair with a family servant.  A nigger.
            So begins Ms Morgan’s huge, epic novel about breeding – of horses and men;  a story that explores ruthlessly the cruel pathways of slavery and racism, as innate and inbred in the old Kentucky families as the bloodline of a favourite dam or sire.
Henry’s obsession with producing the perfect animal doesn’t stop with horses;  it extends to his own progeny, Henrietta, whose high-society mother soon becomes dissatisfied with her quiet life on a horse farm and lights out for pastures new, leaving Henrietta to grow up gaining a home-schooled classical education thanks to dear old dad, but lacking the warmth and normalcy of a loving feminine influence.  The solitary child grows into a singular, brilliant woman, one who takes her pleasures when and where she wants, always conscious of her privileged position and her status as her father’s ‘right-hand man’, but always, always lonely.
Then the miracle occurs:  one of Henry’s mares gives birth to a foal that has all the early indications of a champion, and as she grows, the little filly called Hellsmouth fulfils all her early promise.  She is the longed-for wonder horse, and a new groom is hired by Henrietta to care for her exclusively.  Allmon Shaughnessy is gifted with horses;  he has the touch – unfortunately, he also has a prison record, and he is black.  But Henrietta is intrigued by him and hires him while her father is elsewhere, thus setting in train events that culminate in undreamed-of success for Hellsmouth, and tragedy of Shakespearian proportions for everyone else.
Ms Morgan’s talents as a writer are frightening.  She can beguile the reader with wondrous imagery one minute, then plunge us all quailing into utter horror the next as she hurls words like javelins to describe the cruelty casually dispensed to animals and people.    There are no happy endings here;  Henrietta does not walk off into a rosy sunset with a perfectly-bred Beau approved by Henry, but I have to say it:  WHAT A RIDE!!  And what a writer, despite the eyewateringly small print (my eyes will never recover) and tragedy on every page.  SIX STARS!!

Nutshell, by Ian McEwan

           ‘So here I am, upside down in a woman.’  This is Ian McEwan’s unforgettable introduction to his masterly modern interpretation of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, specifically the murder of the King of Denmark by his brother Claudius and wife Gertrude.
            Hamlet is still in his mother Trudy’s womb, and space is getting more limited by the day;  however, he is quite comfortable for the moment and takes a keen interest in the sounds around him, especially the radio interviews, lectures and podcasts he listens to (Trudy believes in keeping up with the play, globally speaking);  his only complaint about unborn life so far is that his soon-to-be father, publisher John Cairncross, has been evicted from the crumbling family home because mum is having a very carnal and energetic affair with John’s brother Claude.  The frequent battering ram assaults by Claude on various parts of his tender anatomy infuriate our little narrator;  he hopes that his silly mother will soon see the huge differences between the brothers before he sees the light – he is astonished that his kind, intellectually superior father has been supplanted by property-developer Claude, whose claims to sophistication and intelligence are negligible – but he does know how to choose a wine!
            And a lot of wine is consumed, lulling the unborn to sleep most of the time, until he wakes up and hears a conversation which horrifies him:  Trudy and Claude have decided to remove John permanently from their lives by Murder Most Foul.  Because the decaying, filthy house in which Trudy lives (John and Claude’s childhood home) is in a very fashionable part of London, Claude knows that the site is worth millions, and because John is showing a marked and shameful reluctance to end his marriage (For Heaven’s sake, stop grovelling – where’s your self-respect!) there is only one solution:  he’ll have to go.  Claude intends to win Fair Lady and the loot.
            Baby is agog at their duplicity, especially when it becomes painfully clear that he will not figure in their futures, but will be ‘put somewhere’.  To add insult to injury his own father appears to have no interest in his imminent birth either, intent as he is at abasing himself at the sandaled feet of his faithless wife.  What can he do?  What awful fate awaits him?
            Mr McEwan’s book extends to just under two hundred pages, culminating with the birth of our fretting little narrator.  The author likes the idea of a novel that one can read in one or two sittings, ‘an intense experience’ – always assuming that it will entertain the reader sufficiently enough to do just that.  I have to admit that I have found some of his works to be of a much lesser quality than this one;  however, he has certainly achieved his objective with ‘Nutshell’.  His scintillating prose illustrates treachery, betrayal and murder in grand Shakespearian style and baby Hamlet’s family has never seemed more real.  FIVE STARS    


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