Women’s Prize longlist nominee “The Mare” by Mary Gaitskill is the allegorical story of Velvet, a Dominican girl from Brooklyn, and “her” mare, a horse seen as dangerous and untamable. Through an outreach program placing inner-city kids with rural families for a few weeks in the summer, Velvet comes into the lives of Ginger and Paul, recovering alcholics living a quiet life in farm country. As part of her initial visit, Velvet explores a neighboring horse farm, where she discovers she has a preternatural connection to the horses, particularly to a mare dubbed “Fugly Girl.” Scarred and scared, Fugly Girl is kept apart from the other horses and given wide berth by the people on the farm, but Velvet is irresistibly drawn to her, referring to her as “my mare” from the moment they meet.
“The Mare” is a story about trauma and scars, about who we are and what shapes us. For Ginger, who feels she has missed her chance to be a ‘true’ woman by being a parent, her connection to and need for Velvet is fierce and instantaneous, though, as her husband Paul worries, “there was something unnerving about the way Ginger was toward Velvet, something fevered, with a whiff of addiction.” In mentoring and pseudo-fostering Velvet, Ginger is attempting to heal herself. Though they come from very different cultures and childhoods, Ginger’s turbulent past seems to drive her ever closer to Velvet, whom she believes sees through her.
“She knew the way I had lived: blank loneliness broken by friendships that would come suddenly into being, surge through the color spectrum, then blacken, crumple, and die; scene after drunken idiotic scene, mashed-up conversations nobody could hear, the tears and ugly laughter quieted only by the rubber tit of alcohol or something else. Friendship was bad, sex was worse, and love— love! That was someone who rang my doorbell at three a.m. and I would let him in so he could tell me I was worthless, hit me, fuck me, and leave unless he needed to sleep over because his real girlfriend was— for some reason!— mad at him. It was not pleasure, it was like a brick wall that a giant hand smashed me against again and again, and it was like the most powerful drug in the world.”
Like any addiction, the highs and lows of “parenting” are visceral and rattling, and at times it seems that Ginger is barely hanging on.
“Being this kind of adult was like driving a car without brakes at night around hairpin turns. My body tensed and relaxed constantly. I was always nearly ruining dinner or forgetting to pick something up. I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to drink— really wanted to, for the first time in years. Was this what parenting was like, 24/ 7? My God, how did anyone do it?”
Ginger, however, is secondary to this story. It is Velvet whom we follow closely and for whom the mare is an unsubtle allegory. With somewhat heavy-handed foreshadowing, we are told:
“‘That horse has been abused. Do you know what that means?’ I didn’t just look at her then, I stared. Because she was mad. But not at me. She was mad at something else, really mad. ‘That means she can hurt you, even if you’re nice to her. She can lash out at anybody just because something made her nervous. Like a person can do or say something crappy because they’re in a bad mood, and they’re in a bad mood a lot. Except most people, what they do, it won’t kill you. She could kill you, like you or me would swat a fly.'”
“‘Yes, you make a horse good by raising it up with a little love and a lot of discipline. But you make a horse great by making it feel like shit. Because it knows it is not shit and it will turn itself inside out to prove it to you. Sure you give it love, just a touch. And then you make it crave the love, make it try to please you for another little taste— it will turn itself inside out to show you it’s good; you make that horse prove it over and over, every time. If that horse is worth anything, it will pull up everything it’s got for you and it will find what it’s worth and be more and more proud. It will know it can take whatever you got and sometimes it will give it back. But it will know its worth. And it will do anything to make you know it. It will die to make you know it.'”
Velvet IS the mare. The physical and verbal abuse slung at her by her mother, the violent life of her neighborhood, the fickle nature of her friendships all have scarred her and made her volatile and potentially dangerous. She is a young girl striving to live and thrive under constant threat. Again, like her mare, Velvet is clearly unbreakably strong. She is knocked down and she sometimes falters, but her spirit is indomitable.
“‘The thing about mares? They will always draw a line in the sand. Stallions, geldings, they can be tough. But while a mare’ll take a lot of shit, eventually she will draw a line in the sand, and when she does that— cross it and she is going to take you down, even if she has to die doing it. Just like a woman. It’s why some people don’t like mares.'”
Mary Gaitskill has skills as a writer. Some of her turns of phrase were quite striking, such as when Velvet thinks: “his look was not candy. It was tight and hot, joking and serious. Like a song I never heard before.” “The Mare” is well written and intriguing, but it had some serious flaws which prevented it from being a true success in my book. The use of patois and street slang was unsettling for me; from the pen of a white writer, the vernacular of an Hispanic teenager is hard pressed to come off as anything other than parody. It feels disingenuous and caricature-like. In that same vein, I struggled from the outset with the premise that this was yet another story of a poor, minority, inner-city child being rescued by the great white hope. Finally, the heavy-handedness of foreshadowing and metaphor throughout the novel made it feel a bit trite and predictable, like a made for TV movie with great dialogue but no gravitas. “The Mare” is a fine read for the airport or the beach, but seems out of place on a list of elite works such as nominees for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.