by Mary Gaitskill
This powerfully understated story tells of an inner-city girl who goes to spend a few weeks with a couple in upstate New York for the summer, as part of a Fresh Air Fund program. The couple is childless and want to see what it\’s like to have a kid around the house, before they consider adoption to grow their family. They have issues- the husband\’s attention is divided, the wife is a recovering alcoholic- and their perspective is almost as interesting as Velvet\’s. She\’s the girl from a rough neighborhood in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Her mother- from the Dominican Repulic, working a crap job and struggling to make ends meet, doesn\’t speak English so all communication between her and the host family is through a translator, or her children. This neatly sets the stage for a large number of misunderstandings….
Velvet at first is cool and stand-offish when she arrives in the country but she is soon fascinated with the horses at the stable next door. She\’s allowed to take riding lessons and is drawn to a troublesome mare in the barn, one considered dangerous, with a history of abuse. Velvet finds a connection with the horse and quickly picks up skills under the eye of a trainer in the barn- it turns out she has a natural ability at riding- the way this is written was so vivid and visceral. How she feels when she\’s on a horse, how she makes it understand her wishes, how it moves and responds- I can\’t explain it well, but I was glued to every page. There is such a vast difference between the life Velvet leads in the countryside and her existence back home in the city- where her mother curses and beats her, where boys sneer on the streets, all kinds of bad things happen. Ginger becomes emotionally invested in the girl, tries to help her with homework, invites her back again and again- outside of the boundaries set by the initial program. Velvet has a painfully large need for affection and love- I think it\’s why she bonds so well with the horse- then back at home acts out, seeks the attention of boys, etc. Bigger things happen, Ginger gets waaay too involved in Velvet\’s life, the mother becomes enraged- I can\’t say more. You must read it!
Funny, I suspected at first I might not like this book- it jumps back and forth between POV nearly every other page- most \’chapters\’ are half a page, one or two at most. I thought I would find that style jarring, or disjointed but it wasn\’t so. The words are strong, so much is revealed on every page, insights into what each character is feeling or why they did something. I\’m not sure if all the extra voices were needed- Velvet and Ginger\’s alone would have told most of the story- but Ginger\’s husband is in there too, and Velvet\’s mother has a voice every now and then. It all adds depth. The story has a lot of rough spots- by which I mean, scenes that are very hard to read- but somehow I just could not put it down. It\’s certainly unlike any other horse book I\’ve read yet.
Rating: 4/5 441 pages, 2015