Elaine Walker: The Horses
10.03.2012: Update on availability: available via the author's website, £9.00, including p&p. Mention this site when ordering and get a £1.00 discount.
I've had this book for a while, so many apologies to the author, who must have been wondering if I would ever get round to reading it. Initially, I admit, I was put off by the blurb, which says the book "uses magical realism to stunning effect; the disruption of the boundaries of the physical and the psychological and a constant sense of strangeness add to a powerful story that is as compelling as it is important."
What I thought I was going to get was something that was consciously difficult; which paraded its shifts of focus in that sort of authorial display of cleverness that makes you wonder just whose clothes, or lack of them, are being paraded.
What I actually got was one of the most absorbing books I have read in a long while. It's set in a post-Apocalyptic Scotland. A neat nuclear family, parents, son and daughter were on holiday in remote Scotland, only to find that anyone living in a centre of population is dead. They have been living on a remote Scottish farm, attempting to survive through farming. The father though, is near to death, after a kick from one of their cattle. The father does die, but when he does, a herd of horses gallops over the hills, and takes up residence with the family. Joel, the son, knows that he will have to journey to the nearest town to get more supplies; brave whatever has de-populated the world and get enough for his own family to live.
Ever since I read Peter Dickinson's Changes trilogy, which deals with a world in which machines are feared, and society has returned to a Mediaeval level, I've been fascinated with how the world would cope in disaster. How would I cope if I had to survive just by what I could produce? How would anyone cope? So, this book was right up my street in that respect. It deals with the family's slow emergence from their initial isolation, and what happens as they gradually encounter more survivors of the disaster. It is genuinely gripping. The horses are an essential part of the action, though there's a bit more to them than the usual horse. Their interaction with the human subjects of the book is more considered. As to what the horses actually are, and why they're there, no explanation emerges; one has to take them as read, but that isn't a problem. They, and the vast majority of the novel's more fantastic moments, fit into the plot seamlessly. There is the odd episode which jars; the appearance of a doctor in the absolute nick of time seems just too unlikely, but in the main believability isn't a problem.
The difficulty with combining post apocalyptic struggle with magical realism is that there still needs to be enough believable struggle. Life needs to be convincingly hard, and generally here it is. Once you've introduced the possibility of the fantastic solving problems, it must be a temptation to wave that wand and sort out your characters' problems through it, but it's a temptation Elaine Walker generally resists.
What she has done is produce a gripping study of man's reaction to disaster. It is beautifully written and observed, and contains one of the most powerful pieces of observation of personal disaster I've read in a long time. There is one particular scene in the novel which will stay with me for a long time; what happens as Joel rescues the French children from the nearby town takes your breath away.
I am looking forward to reading it again.