It’s very difficult to find a novel about horses meant for adults and not kids. Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven (Ballantine Books; 1999) fills this gap. This is an epic-sized novel where the horses’ characters are gone into as much detail as the humans’. Although not all of the loose ends are tied up, this is still a satisfying read for the adult horse-lover.
If the name Jane Smiley sounds familiar, it’s because she won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction back in 1992 for A Thousand Acres (Alfred A. Knopf; 1991). She also wrote a non-fiction horse racing book entitled A Year at the Races: Reflections of Horses, Humans, Love, Money and Luck (Anchor; 2005.)
What Is the Book About?
The book is set in the thoroughbred flat racing world in the 1990s. It focuses on six yearlings in particular, but also includes a wide variety of thoroughbreds in and out of racing. Real horses, trainers and jockeys of the time mingle with the fictional ones. The horses are cared for (or not cared for in some cases) by the usual bizarre cast that make up just about any racetrack, such as:
- · The good trainer who tries not to cheat
- · The bad trainer who abuses his horses, dopes – and wins a crapload of money
- · The jaded trainer who wants to quit
- · A trainer’s wife who believes her wishes can come true
- · A gambling addict with a small child
- · An owner/trainer who beats horses senselessly for obedience and then abandons them
- · A girl who wants a horse
- · A Jack Russell terrier
Smiley did her research. Many authors who set books in the wacky world of thoroughbred racing have no clue as to how horses and horse people behave. Smiley shows the whole spectrum of the good, bad and downright ugly of thoroughbred breeding and racing. It’s not all doom and gloom but more like the shadow cast by the unforgiving sun.
She shows how the majority of those in the racing business treat their horses – as money-making machines. As soon as the horse can no longer make money, it’s discarded like garbage. This is seen, for example, when one owner cannot be bothered to remember the names of the horses he owned.
One character is completely unbelievable (the trainer’s wife Rosalind) and takes up a good chunk of this rather large book. The parts with her drag down an otherwise great novel. Why Smiley included her I have no idea. She seems like a character from an entirely different novel.
Another problem is that Smiley starts pulling the punches she begins to throw at the thoroughbred racing industry. She started to make a point and then by the end swerves around 180 degrees. She never becomes preachy and leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions, but the change in tone is as jarring as getting thrown off a cranky mare.