sport of kings

This book has been on my TBR since earlier this year when it was longlisted for the Baileys Prize. A hefty (545 pages) epic tale set in Kentucky and centred on horse racing – you’ve got to be in the right mood to pick that up. Am I glad I bothered? Yes and no…

This is the story of two families. One is rich and white, the other poor and black. The Forge family are a Southern dynasty going back generations in Kentucky. Their wealth came from working the farm, or rather from putting their slaves to work on the farm. The novel begins back in the 1960s, the young Henry Forge running away from the wrath of his father after accidentally killing the neighbour’s bull. Henry, son of John Henry, is taught that the white man is intellectually superior to the black man. Heritage is all, and John Henry wants his son to understand that it is his place to follow in his father’s footsteps. But Henry falls in love with horses and wants to turn the old farm into a stud farm. Over his dead body, says John Henry, and so it is.

The other family is Allmon Shaughnessy’s. He grows up with his mother Marie in a two room apartment in Cincinnati. Marie is black; his father, who turns up every now and again until one day he doesn’t, is white. With only Marie’s dwindling wages to survive on, things get worse when she begins to suffer with an unnamed autoimmune disease (similar to Lupus but not). With a job that doesn’t offer healthcare and only just pays her too much to qualify for Medicaid, Marie cannot afford to see a doctor or get treatment. When the local crack dealer offers Allmon a job, he takes the money for his mother to get a doctor’s appointment:

Marie: I don’t have insurance.

Doctor: Oh. I see. And with these medical records, you’re ineligible. Well…the only other thing I can suggest is that we get you started on prednisone. It’s cheap and it works. Of course, sometimes the side effects of the drug can be worse than the disease. 

Marie: There’s nothing else?

Doctor: Not really. Lupus doesn’t get much research. Mostly, colored women get it. There’s nothing else to do but take steroids. We’re all still following a script that was written fifty years ago. 

To pay the bills, Allmon runs drugs, ends up in juvenile detention through being in the wrong place at the wrong time, then ends up in adult jail (in a strange self-destructive act that makes no sense to me at the second time of reading). Surviving by alternately keeping his head down and fighting back when necessary, Allmon ends up in a lower security facility where he’s put to work with horses as part of his rehabilitation. It is this experience that brings him to the Forge farm on a day when Henry is absent, when his daughter Henrietta is in charge of hiring new staff.

What I loved about this book was the use of language. Morgan revels in rich description, though at times it does become a little too extensive, and reading it I felt the time that had been taken to create each image in a way that the reader could visualise the scene. The Kentucky tourist board must love this book! This is a brave book. Morgan tackles race, sex, violence, genetics, incest and legacy head on. The poverty of Marie and Allmon is as vivid as the richness of the Forge estate, and watching Marie’s illness progress, knowing that it was a failure in the system that was letting her down (and knowing that it wouldn’t happen in the UK, for all our own faults) was heartbreaking. There was a hopelessness to Marie’s plight. The foreshadowing of future events was at first clever, though I did then begin to guess the plot ahead of time. The amount of research done into genetics, presented on the page in a way that ties in with the story and doesn’t obstruct it, was brilliant.

What didn’t work so well for me was Allmon’s story arc. At no time is Allmon in control of his own destiny and this bothers me greatly. He makes mistakes that seem to follow the racist logic that old John Henry teaches his son back in the 1960s. Even his arrival at the Forge farm is down to the advice of an officer at the penitentiary. He embarks on an affair with Henrietta Forge after she makes advances, even though there is some doubt as to whether he even likes her. He leaves without a word when her father threatens him. For me,  Allmon was reduced to acting as a template of what the author imagined a stereotypical man of colour to be. The ending proved that once and for all, a blazing climax that seemed to come from nowhere and have no useful purpose other than marking a dramatic end to the Forge era.

At first I wondered if this was a fault of the author not living through these experiences. But I actually had just as big an issue with Henrietta. After her parents divorce she is left with a father who becomes obsessed with her. In retaliation for his behaviour, as an adult she drives to a pub out of town, where nowhere will know her, and begins to use it as a place to pick up men. In this way her seduction of Allmon fits, but when she decides she’s in love after a few rolls in the hay with a man she knows nothing about because they never talk about anything, this feels like the author steering a plot back on course rather than an organic turn of events. I also call foul when characters don’t have any friends or confidantes. Henrietta I could buy since she grows up under her father’s shadow and is home schooled, but it seems strange that Allmon would not have any friends, even as a child in his old neighbourhood.

Overall thoughts: this could have been a brilliant book. It had all of the ingredients – masterful storytelling, epic reach, breathtaking prose. For me, I longed to root for a character. I would rather lose the horse analogies for a couple of hundred pages and have Henrietta break back against her father, or to have Allmon make a decision for himself that didn’t rely on Henry Forge’s twisted deals. By the end of 545 pages I just didn’t care what happened to any of them and that was disappointing.

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