No, not the Patti Smith début album, much as I love it, but a long story by the Irish writer Keith Ridgway, unknown to me until a few weeks ago, when I read a typically perceptive review by John Self of a more recent novel, The Long Falling. John rightly praised not only Ridgway’s fiction but also his website; it’s a joy to read, critically alert and thoughtful, witty, precisely expressed, humane. So, once again, thank you, John.
Horses was first published in First Fictions: Introduction 13 in 1997, with work by Elliot Perlman and Hannah Crow. It was reissued as a standalone volume in 2003, something that’s hard to imagine these days, certainly from a mainstream publisher like Faber. Technically, I suppose, the story is a novella, a form that’s about as popular among publishers in the current climate as mumps at a stud farm (no, no bitterness). But it punches, as they say, well above its 80-page weight.
It’s a short book about death and how people deal with it – essentially the death, or absence, of the woman – mother or wife – represented by the death, through arson, of three horses. These horses become a symbol of loss but also of freedom, and of knowledge ‘about how the world was made and how it moves’, as Mathew puts it in his dream-vision after being attacked by the arsonist and left for dead. Mathew’s attacked because he’s spoken to the priest, half-revealing a secret. The book begins and ends with secrecy and revelation. The first sentence goes like this:
In the broad spaces of the streets near the square, Mathew stood and watched for the secrets which the rain reveals.
The rain is a constant presence throughout the book, creating its mood of oppression and relentlessness, as fictional rain invariably does. But it’s also the great mover here, without which nothing would be revealed at all; Mathew would never be offered shelter by Fr Devoy and tell him what he has seen without it. Fr Devoy, the doctor and the policeman would not have found themselves isolated from the rest of the world without the storm, ‘cluttering the view’ but also, with its lightning, cutting through the darkness.
Mathew, described as ‘a village idiot who is a genius’, is an outsider, and the book looks at what that might mean in a tightly-knit community. But he isn’t the only one. The arsonist too is someone who doesn’t belong, a Protestant who converted to Catholicism and changed town to be with his wife, who is now dead. Even the priest is new to the town, and shaken by what he’s found, fearing the influence of the big city as something ‘watery and perverse’ as arson strikes. The doctor is Protestant, the doctor’s daughter, whose horses have died in one of the fires, is orphaned. This might be the set-up for a story about small country towns and the way they work, absorbing and repelling in the vein of Straw Dogs or Cranford, according to the author’s bent. But the book’s less concerned with belonging, finally, than with its corollary, displacement through loss; for a story set in a traditional community it has a lot to say about not knowing who you are, and about the way in which community won’t help you find it out. Towards the end of the book, Mathew confesses his secret to Helen, the doctor’s daughter:
‘What is the secret of you, Mathew?’
‘I’m not sure. I can’t remember.’
‘What has it to do with?’
‘What kind of secret is it?’
‘To do with confusion.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I did not know my mother.’
‘That’s your secret?’
‘That is the only secret I know, Miss Helen.’
‘I don’t see how that’s a secret.’
‘It’s a secret who she is.’
‘That is the secret of me.’
When Mathew asks Helen her secret, she tells him.
‘Dying, I think.’
‘That is the secret of most people,’ he said. ‘Dying and not dying.’
At the end of the story, Mathew and Helen are alone in the field where Helen would exercise her horses, ‘huddled on a plank by the leftovers of the horses who were dead and in the sky.’ The final sentence reads:
The men walked by, missing them.
Some books yield less the more you think about them. Horses does quite the opposite. I recommend it.