sábado, 5 de marzo de 2011

Our Horses in Egypt

Our Horses in Egypt (Chatto & Windus, 2007)
by Rosalind Belben
England, 2007

To Burdock, cogitating, it seemed that horses appreciated scenery.  Burdock felt sorry that they what had fallen had missed the flowering.  Mighty sorry.  With the flowering had come sand flies.  Despite privation, sand-flies, wounds and the dying, were it nice for an animal to be alive?  Nicer than never to live at all?
Burdock didn't know.
Throughout the afternoon, in a narrow defile, Philomena hung her head.
The rain had stopped and a rainbow stood in the sky.
Led horses were being shelled elsewhere, and going down in a dreadful tangle and panic.  Their vital spark was vanquished in the ubiquitous puffs of smoke.  Here all was peaceful.
Before he was killed Sage had seen her easy and had waited--humble--for that droopy lip and the closeness of nostril and breath that would have told him that his rubbing her down with his fingers gratified her.
Philomena never did reward him.
His teeth had been chattering.
(Our Horses in Egypt, 122 and 180)

At the risk of making Our Horses in Egypt sound something like a highbrow Watership Down (which it isn't!),  I think the easiest way for me to go about describing it is to start by saying that most of the 2007 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction award winner takes place on two different temporal planes and as seen through the eyes of two different species.  In the novel's present, moneyed war widow Griselda Romney sets out from England to Egypt in 1921 to see if she can discover what has become of the lone surviving family horse that was requisitioned by the British army for service in World War I.  In the novel's recent past, Romney's light brown mare, Philomena, witnesses the carnage and suffering of world war in the Middle East from her four-legged vantage point as a non-human participant in the action in Egypt and Palestine.  Near the end of the novel, there's an intersection of the two planes that, while anticipated, was so finely wrought as to leave this misanthrope-in-the-making feeling devastated.  As befits what's both an unusually told and an unusually moving narrative, though, I have unusually mixed feelings regarding Our Horses in Egypt on the whole.  On the one hand, I loved Belben's clipped, vaguely Woolfian storytelling style and the startlingly impersonal POV which would bracingly move from man to beast and back again with nary a slip-up to be found.  On the other hand, I positively hated spending time with many of her upper crust human protagonists--petty, high maintenance whiners for the most part--and was almost equally aggravated by her often arbitrary use of italics.  Too gimmicky, my dear!  While I can think of all sorts of possible reasons for Belben to have portrayed her lead human characters as such annoying creatures as she did, the fact remains that I distinctly would have preferred more of the fine writing on the horses and the unspeakable wartime horrors that they and their revolving door stable of unfortunate riders endured instead.  In short, a powerful but a far from perfect tale.  (http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/)

Rosalind Belben

Our Horses in Egypt was the Wolves' book of the month for February 2011 (delayed one weekend).  Here are some other opinions on it for your reading enjoyment:

9 comentarios:

  1. Yeah, I get you on both the italics and the annoying humans. Although there were quite a few moments when I found myself surprised to be liking Griselda, particularly toward the end. And even when I was finding the humans annoying, I felt it wasn't without reason vis-a-vis the rest of the book's themes - another way Belben brings into question the automatic prioritization of humans over non-humans. And totally agree about the end! Basically, for such a weird, risky proposition, I was impressed with how well Belben did despite agreeing with some of your same critiques.

  2. I found myself snickering through most of the human scenes, and gripping the pages for all I was worth during Philomena's bits. Kind of a roller coaster. I was highly impressed with the thing as a whole, although I can see how the human characters could strike one as overblown and annoying. I just finished a book by Woolf though, so I was primed for this one.

  3. Perhaps the horses are made more interesting by the whining of the humans? Belben's preference for the animals here seems fairly clear, and the one part of the book that I did not enjoy was her less than subtle comparisons that highlight what Emily identifies as "the automatic prioritization of humans over non-humans." Was this necessary? Like screaming in the middle of a library. Otherwise found it enjoyable.

  4. Awww, now I really want to read this. Amazon is going to be hearing from me about their non-delivery.

  5. I really enjoyed this book and wand to thank The Wolves for choosing it. I found most of the humans annoying, thoroughly enjoyed Belben's "less then subtle" comparisons between humans and animals and really appreciated the ending.

  6. *Emily: Since I found the soldiers less annoying than Griselda for most of the novel, I'm not quite sure what Belben intended us to make of her annoying protagonist. Don't think it was just a human vs. a non-human thing. Maybe she actually goes for that "batty chatter" that Sarah mentioned in her post. In any event, lots to like here, I agree!

    *Sarah: Not to beat a dead horse (uh, sorry...), but up until the very end, I wished Belben had concentrated on the wartime/equine stuff and not the postwar Griselda stuff. Found myself chomping at the bit during the "present" interludes. The last 25 pages or so redeemed the novel for me, but I'm glad you (and most of the others) found the annoying humans less annoying than I did, ha ha!

    *Frances: Your question raises one of the possibilities for sure, but I didn't mind the soldiers so much as the rich widow and the crabby nanny. Of course, they got less face time, too. In any event, I think I fall somewhere between you and Emily on how subtle Belben was on the human vs. animal prioritization thing. "Like screaming in the middle of a library," eh? Laughed at that image!

    *E.L. Fay: I'd send you my copy, but I got mine from the library. Will look forward to what you make of the novel when Amazon gets it act together for you. Cheers!

    *Gavin: My fellow Wolves are such anglophiles that I thought I was the only one who was going to find the lead characters so annoying--what a surprise to see how wrong I was! Anyway, thanks again for reading along with us (all thanks for the pick must go to Emily, though, because that was her idea alone). Cheers!

  7. Hi Richard, right here, this is fantastic: "I loved Belben's clipped, vaguely Woolfian storytelling style and the startlingly impersonal POV which would bracingly move from man to beast and back again with nary a slip-up to be found." Clipped. I've heard this word before in contexts where a writer's style is being discussed, but there always seems to be a slight shade of difference that I miss - or at least I'm fearful I've missed. What exactly do you mean by "clipped" in this instance? Economy? Or a kind of staccato? In one of your previous comments, you said you weren't a writer. I politely call bullshit! Very politely. Many cheers, Kevin

  8. *Kevin: Thanks for the kind words (i.e. the polite ones and those very polite ones near the end) and the question--I'd been worried that this was a post that was only going to draw comments from the various readalong participants! Anyway, what I meant by "clipped" in reference to Belben was the idea that her delivery was terse and abbreviated to the point of almost seeming abrupt at times. In a good way, though. The "Woolfian" part had more to do with the stream of consciousness employed, but there was something about Belben's style that reminded me of Mrs. Dalloway a little. It seems like you were on the right track anyway, but does this help at all? Emily from Evening All Afternoon also used the term "clipped" in her post on Belben, so maybe we could invite her to share as well. Cheers!

  9. At the moment, Emily's blog is unavailable, but I'll chase it down soon enough!