The Premise: Velvet is eleven, a Dominican girl living in Brooklyn, selected by the Fresh Air Fund to spend time with a wealthy couple in upstate New York; they’re Ginger, a failed artist, and Paul, an academic with slightly less enthusiasm for the situation than his wife. Given the opportunity to learn to ride horses during her visit, Velvet is transformed, and her relationship with Ginger becomes intense. But, as becomes clear, they come from different worlds, and these worlds don’t necessarily fit together too well.
Thoughts: I really enjoyed The Mare. It’s occasionally a bit cliched and the characters can behave very much according to type, but it’s a really engaging and absorbing book. Now that I have become the kind of person who spends their free time reading everything on prize longlists, I sometimes find that I’m reading something that I don’t particularly enjoy but feel pressured to find worthy nonetheless. I didn’t have that problem with The Mare, because it’s not a pretentious book, but one which constructs a fascinating relationship between two very different people.
Velvet starts the book at the age of eleven, and her narrative alternates with that of Ginger, with the occasional contribution from Paul and also Velvet’s mother. Velvet’s chapters sound like a child; Gaitskill creates a convincing voice with which to convey the hardships of the character’s life; living in a dangerous neighbourhood, struggling with her violent mother and burgeoning maturity, there’s a lot going on for Velvet, which horse-riding helps to alleviate. I liked this idea of horse-riding as a means of saving her; I don’t know if it’s a bit of a cliche, but it works as part of the narrative.
Velvet’s voice drives the novel, but the other characters are intriguing too. Ginger is a mess, but a compelling one. She’s aware of how she might appear to be exhibiting a white saviour complex, and trips over herself trying not to make it look like this, while actually doing a lot of things that fit the idea, like calling Velvet every week to help with her homework. Their relationship, and the conflict it causes with Velvet’s terrifying mother, is really fascinating. As Velvet comes back to stay with Ginger again and again, the idea of what constitutes a family becomes a driving force of the novel.
In Conclusion: I found The Mare a really pleasant surprise. I’d never heard of it before the announcement of the Baileys long-list, but I’m really pleased I read it. I don’t think the style is impressive enough to earn the prize, and the shortlisted books almost all held more appeal for me, but it’s definitely a book worth reading.