Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill

A girl, a woman, and a horse.

Velveteen Vargas, 11 year old daughter to an illiterate Dominican immigrant, gets a chance to visit the country as a Fresh Air Fund kid. Her foster parents, Ginger and Paul, live near a rundown stable, and in that stable, caged, for she is too aggressive to run free, is a scarred horse called Fiery Girl, disparagingly referred to as “Fugly Girl.” But Velvet has a calming effect on the dangerous horse. Velvet's love for horses and riding grows and it is soon revealed she is a natural equestrienne. Meanwhile, Ginger feels a powerful bond with the disadvantaged child while realistic Paul feels she ignores his commonsense advice about getting too involved.  Also maybe he feels that she ignores him. As Velvet enters adolescent, she encounters the boys of the neighborhood, who are at danger of being shot, and falls in love with one. Meanwhile, Silvia, Velvet's mother, attempts to beat the waywardness out of Velvet and resents the pull this white couple and what they have to offer has on the girl. She says they treat Velvet like a pet. The story always heads toward the climax, the competition with the white girls at the upscale stable.

This novel is plotted like a children’s book (specifically National Velvet), but written with high technical virtuosity, bringing the characters and the conflict to life using brief (sometimes only a paragraph) first person narrations. The writing and the imagery are simple and beautiful, showcasing the unmitigated pain of the characters. Velvet, seemingly unloved apart from a dead grandfather, childless recovering alcoholic Ginger, mourning the death of her mentally ill sister. And Fiery Girl, unable to trust, after being brutally punished by an earlier owner. The three are able to comfort each other, but only partially and only temporarily.

Nominally about a girl and a horse, the book is actually about so much more. This is about race and class in America, the huge and perhaps irremediable differences these two things make in the stability of people’s lives. It’s hard to be even tempered when there’s not enough money for rent, or when your mother’s unsavory tenant molests you, or every boy you know seems to get shot. Like Mona Simpson’s My Hollywood, one of the points of the book is social commentary, presenting a first person narration of American society from someone at the margins, someone not possessing or using the vocabulary of the elite.

In addition to the brilliantly written prose, I also enjoyed the way the tension was skillfully, almost unbearably, ratcheted up, as the plot points planted near the end of each section detonated. One of the questions asked (and not answered) is why do people have such painful lives and why do those people end up making things more painful? The final scene, Velvet’s triumph is also, (I guess) her defeat.

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