Review: Jane Smiley - Mystery Horse

Jane Smiley: Mystery Horse
Faber and Faber, £6.99
Published on 3 May 2012

Jane Smiley's website

Thank you to the publishers for sending me a copy of this book.

I loved the first novel in this series, Nobody's Horse; its sequel Secret Horse I was rather more ambivalent about. Abby Lovitt, heroine of the series, starts off a watchful, detached girl, but one who has made small but significant changes by the end of the book. In the second book, I felt there was a loss of focus: the calm, unhurried move of the first book towards a resolution of sorts of Abby's difficulties tapered off and the book didn't have the dramatic pull of the first.

In this third book, Abby has found her feet again. A  local stable has a beautiful grey horse whose owner has been killed. They cannot trace any heirs, so are selling the horse, and offer him to Abby's family. Abby buys True Blue, but in an accident rounding up cattle, breaks her wrist, and so can only work with the new horse on the ground, and not ride him. True Blue it seems to Abby is always watching and waiting - whether for his owner she does not know, but Abby soon becomes convinced she and the horse are being haunted by his old owner.  This supernatural element is very well done indeed: what Abby thinks is utterly believable, and I loved the ambiguous explanation of the haunting at the end.

Jane Smiley is a brilliant observer of horses and ponies. The book is studded with wonderful bits which describe just what horses and ponies are like. Here is Abby talking about ponies:

"Even when they are lazy, most ponies don't look lazy - they look perky and bright, as if somewhere there is a horse who needs to be told what to do, and if the pony is lucky, that horse will appear any minute."

It has been wonderful to read a book in which I've thoroughly enjoyed, and particularly one where I've not felt the author had an issue they wanted me to notice. This book maintains the unrushed pace of the other two, but sees Abby and her situation develop. In particular, her family situation receives more attention. Abby's local church has a family with two young and unruly children whom Abby or a friend are often called on to mind at church. Abby takes one of the boys out to the local mall, and loses him. The boy is quickly found, but Abby is in deep trouble. The incident also exposes differences within the church: Abby's father thinks the boys's parents should exert much more discipline; this is contrasted with his behaviour to Abby's brother, who was estranged from the family, but who is now in contact again.  Jane Smiley approaches the family's faith without judgement: she observes, but doesn't judge.

Jane Smiley has found her way with this series again in this third title. It's a book I was able to relax into, happy for the author to take me where she would.

Note: this book was originally published under the title True Blue


haffyfan said…
I somehow missed your review Jane. I'm just reading this now and am seriously struggling, i'm finding the religious aspect (which is present in all) especially suffocating in this one in parts and despite being almost 2/3 of the way through now i'm still wondering when it's ever going to get started/going?
Jane Badger said…
I didn't mind the religious bit - for me, it shed a bit more light on the relationships in the family. As for getting going, I'm not sure the book really does, in the sense of being a thrill a minute! Have you finished it? Did it grow on you at all?
haffyfan said…
In short no it didn't but i have finally finished it, abeit via the Scorpio races and 2 others inbetween.
Sadly don't think i'll now rush out to buy the next (if there is one), which is a shame as i did enjoy the first two.
Jane Badger said…
It is quite slow moving. As far as I know, there's nothing else planned in that series.
Georgina Blair said…
Have just read it and loved it! Brilliantly written and the horse observations are great, and so are some of the ones about people too.

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