Sarah Lean: A Horse for Angel
HarperCollins, 2013, £6.99
Also available as an ebook
Sarah Lean is a new author to me: A Horse for Angel is her second book, following A Dog Called Homeless. Aimed at primary age children, it’s the story of Nell, who lives with her frantically busy, on-the-edge-of-neglectful, mother. Her father left them years ago to live in Las Vegas with a new woman, and Nell’s not seen him since. Nell’s life is a procession through different forms of childcare. She’s shipped off to an aunt she’s never met for two weeks during the summer, and there she meets Angel. Nell’s life may be difficult, but Angel’s is even more so. She’s on the run from a children’s home, and has kidnapped a horse, Bella. Bella needs saving from the meat man, and Angel needs saving from a life of loneliness. The two girls have a difficult relationship at first, but their gradual acceptance of one another is beautifully depicted.
This book’s strength is in its depiction of relationships: Nell’s difficult relationship with her mother is well observed: Nell has the watchfulness common to children buffeted by parental busy-ness, sidelined into an endless round of pre and after school clubs, not really certain of their place in the world or in their parents’ affections. Nell’s mother comes off even worse in comparison with her Aunt Liv. Nell’s never met her aunt, but is going to stay with her for two weeks during the holidays, part of the endless juggling necessary as working parents attempt to match long school holidays with the much less generous time off given by the average employer.
“I noticed we’d completely left out a whole middle bit of the conversation where I could say I didn’t want to go. Which is always part of Mum’s master plan. Cut out the annoying middle bit and get to the point, or the next appointment. Never mind what I want.”
Aunt Liv’s house is untidy and cluttered: Nell’s is shiny and organised. Aunt Liv’s children bake cupcakes. Aunt Liv grows things. She’s the earth mother to Nell’s mother’s gloss, to her harried attempts to make a life for herself and her daughter. This isn’t, however, a bashing of working mothers. Sarah Lean isn’t judgemental about Nell’s mother: “It’ll be hard for me, too” she says as she drops Nell off with Liv, “being without you.” Sarah Lean portrays quite brilliantly the differing perspectives from which we can view the relationships between her characters. It’s wonderfully nuanced.
The horse content isn’t quite so strong: the romance of the legend about the hundredth horse sounds rather lovely, but the reality of one person owning ninety nine horses, with really not very much help is that those horses wouldn’t have been looked after properly. You just can’t. The legend shades into outright fantasy as the book progresses, and the nature of Bella’s foal becomes clear. This didn’t detract from the story: it’s done with a light touch.
As an observation of the dynamics of modern family life, this is beautifully, beautifully done. The little nuances and niggles of feeling, the shifting and uneasy compromises of modern life are done with such sensitivity: it’s a lovely read. It’s firmly enough rooted in real life for the fantastic elements to sit relatively easily with it.