By: Mary Gaitskill
Hardcover: 464 pages
Publisher: Pantheon (November 3, 2015)
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang
What do you get when a woman who’s famous for her “dark” stories of prostitution and other sexual misadventure writes a young adult novel* about a poor little girl named Velveteen who learns to ride a horse? If the writer is Mary Gaitskill, you get The Mare, a work that is as troubling as it is compelling, an only sometimes hopeful exploration of people who struggle against the hard truths of their own their limitations, never quite breaking through and never giving up. The book ends with Velvet contemplating an unknowable future with little idea even of what she wants, other than to see her horse again.
The Mare is a story of an impoverished and abused girl from New York who gets a chance though the Fresh Air Fund to spend part of her summer with a middle class family who live next door to a horse stable. The girl, Velvet, has come for the horses, while her host family, which is contemplating adoption, wants to use the visit as a test to see how well they will manage in taking care of someone else’s child. The novel is divided into many small chapters, all of them written in first person. Most are in the voice of Velvet and capture the intensity of a young girl contending with a frightening world.
“Men were talking close. I saw them come around the side of the building, dark moving in dark, arms, legs, jaws. They saw me and stopped. I kept walking. They didn’t call out. But I felt them looking and their look was an animal following me. I made myself not run. I felt animal-breath on my neck. I made myself not pee. Then one of them laughed and the animal turned away.”
Other chapters are in the voices of Velvet’s mother, the couple who sponsor Velvet, Ginger and Paul, and even comparatively minor characters such as Beverly who works at the stable and who thinks. “Even her, the tough black girl from the city — or Puerto Rican, or whatever she is — even she’s been ruined by the Disneyfied horse-snot they sell in the multiplex. Love and self esteem, love and self-esteem —“ Beverly need not have worried. There’s little enough of either in Velvet’s life. What she has instead is an allegiance to one world in which she is regularly beaten and told that she’s “a dumb girl trying to be smart” and a dawning awareness of another world with riding lessons and parents who read stories to her. Paul is right to worry. “This girl had need, big need. I could feel it under her uncertainty and diffidence. And here was Ginger with her need, looking at Velvet with shining eyes, calling her “princess,” and tucking her in at night. It seemed an unstable mix of things, combustable, a promise that could not be kept.”
There’s no Disneyfied horse-snot in this book; the “promise” of life with Ginger and Paul is not kept. Instead, the “promise” of their life is explored, and its tenderness, fragility, betrayal, and compromise are all exposed. The poverty and abuse of Velvet’s home are also explored, along with the determination, passion, and family loyalty that hold it together. Velvet thinks: “I felt like saying to Ginger, See, we laugh. Later that night, my mom washed my hair and put relaxer and bleach on it and I felt like saying, See? I felt it again when I looked at my mom and Dante sleeping, the sweet way she was with him. And when I saw my mom do her push-ups every morning before she went to work, before she even made our food, before it was even light .… I remembered how she said to us once that if anybody ever hurt us, she would come after them with her body, and I knew it was true.”
The genius of Gaitskill’s writing is in the richness with which she creates each of her characters. No matter how needy, violent, or self sabotaging they sometimes are, we see them whole, struggling towards a better life. And when Velvet makes her triumphant ride with the biggest, scariest horse in the barn, we rejoice in her fleeting, hard won moments of glory.
*Few reviewers are calling it “young adult,” but it’s a coming of age story about a young girl who loves to ride horses. The chapters are short, and so are the sentences. The vocabulary is something a 12 year old can handle, and there are few, if any, references to issues beyond horses, middle school, budding sexuality, and family life (though the families involved are mostly dysfunctional and marked by drug abuse and betrayal). There is a little actual sex, but it is discretely portrayed, and there is almost no profanity. There’s a great deal of feeling, both physical and emotional, and not too much in the way of philosophizing. Finally, it’s a beautiful book that can be enjoyed by readers of any age — the real hallmark of good YA.