The Premise: the Forges are a Kentucky dynasty, represented through the biggest part of the novel by Henry, a ruthless racehorse owner who defied his father’s wishes to pursue his ambition. Henry’s daughter Henrietta is his partner in breeding the perfect horse, but their lives are complicated by the arrival of Allmon, a black man just released from prison and eager to achieve his own equine goals.
Thoughts: I was put off The Sport of Kings initially, mainly due to its length; it’s over 500 pages and, additionally, it appears to be all about horse-racing, which is not a big interest of mine. It was only on the third attempt that I really got involved in the story, but I’m really pleased that I kept at it, because it’s a brilliant book. It opens with Henry’s childhood, harangued by a racist and cruel father, suffocated by the needs of his hearing-impaired mother; it’s not an auspicious opening, but it sets the foundations for Henry’s behaviour and attitudes in later life. The story really gets going with Henrietta, particularly when Allmon enters the scene; I found myself completely unwilling to put the book down as I was so absorbed in the epic narrative.
The Sport of Kings deals with some big issues. From Henry Forge’s father’s reprehensibly racist views, passed on in some part to his son, to Allmon’s troubled childhood and later incarceration, race plays a key part throughout the novel, which wasn’t what I expected when I started it. It creates immense tension, in the competitive horse-racing industry as well as in the personal relationships between the characters. It’s hard to read at times, such is the awfulness of the attitudes on show.
For a book to be so long and earn its keep, it has to be really epic in scale, and The Sport of Kings achieves this; sweeping through generations and two intertwining narrative strands, Morgan’s intentions and execution are really grand. The deeply held resentments, familial trauma and shock tragedies build up to something really Shakespearean; it would be easy to dismiss some of these events as overblown, but, as with a theatrical tragedy, the reader is swept up in the melodrama and the final effect is cathartic. There is some creepy and plain disturbing content, and the themes, while enthralling, aren’t always subtle; overall, though, these don’t detract from the impressive nature of Morgan’s writing.
In Conclusion: I read The Sport of Kings as part of my frantic attempt to read everything on the Baileys Prize longlist. Since embarking on this epic mission, it has been shortlisted too, and I think it needs to win. Although the prose is a little flowery at times (and there’s one character late on who talks like Thor which I didn’t really get), there’s so much gorgeous writing. I loved the sweeping scale and broad themes, as well as the intimacy of the character studies. It’s really quite an extraordinary novel.