Female sexuality, sexual aggression, submission and domination have long been concerns in the work of the award-winning American author Mary Gaitskill. The Mare, her first novel for 10 years, reworks these themes into a complex, multi-layered story that adds racial inequality and horse-whispering into the mix.
Velvet is an 11-year-old Dominican girl living in grinding poverty with her single mother and younger brother in a tough neighbourhood of New York. Courtesy of a charity that arranges vacations in the country for poor inner-city kids, Velvet is sent one summer to stay with Ginger and Paul, a middle-aged couple, whose idyllic set-up is not quite the sanctuary it initially seems.
Ginger is a recovering alcoholic and failed artist, confronting her too-late desire to have a baby, and struggling with her troubled past. To begin with, the emptiness of Ginger’s life and the deprivation of Velvet’s appear a perfect match. Velvet is given a bedroom of her own, a bicycle, new shoes. Even after she smashes a lamp in rage one night, Ginger and Paul do not get angry.
When Ginger arranges riding lessons for Velvet at the nearby stables, Velvet discovers she not only has a gift for riding, but a deep affinity with horses. One of them, a mare called Fugly Girl, is “kicking and biting the hell out of her cage”. She has “straight, deep scars”, and is as mistrustful and needful of love as Velvet, who determines to befriend her.
As Velvet woos the mare, Ginger woos Velvet, secretly indulging a fantasy of adopting the girl. With her “face full of niceness with pain around the edges”, Ginger is still a child herself, building airy castles in which she is the Good Queen and Velvet is her “Princess”.
But Ginger has failed to factor in Velvet’s actual mother, Silvia, who expresses a dysfunctional devotion to her strong-willed, unbiddable daughter through quotidian cruelty. “She did not go for her belt; she was in too big a hurry. She just took off her shoe and turned her arm into a belt.” Both Ginger and Silvia, we learn, have been maimed as grown women by their own scared and desperate mothers. Silvia is not giving up her daughter to that “rotten-belly woman” without a fight. Velvet, meanwhile, is fighting every bit as hard to resist being tamed by either woman.
The novel’s action takes place over two years, in which the initial fairytale elements of the story are intercut with the extreme harshness of Velvet’s life back in Brooklyn. Gaitskill depicts this world with skill and sensitivity, both the ubiquitous violence and material misery, and at the same time its heady, chaotic vitality. The predatory sexuality of the men and boys is as exciting as it is menacing. “I saw them come around the side of the building, dark moving in dark, arms, legs, jaws . . . their look was like an animal following me.”
The novel is narrated in short first-person sections, told mainly from the alternating perspectives of Ginger and Velvet, and occasionally other characters. The effect is intentionally destabilising. While the characters strive for connection, their differing versions of the same events underscore the elusiveness of real intimacy. The central theme of the novel, in any case, is not intimacy, but power, and how we use and abuse it in our relationship with others and with ourselves.
Velvet’s burgeoning sexuality is one such source of power. “Her body’s an alarm about to go off,” as her mother puts it. Her mare serves as a symbol of this untamed sexual energy, and Gaitskill is particularly good at conveying the sensual charge between girl and horse, preventing the horse-whisperer elements of the novel from descending into whimsy. When Fugly Girl, now renamed Fiery Girl by Velvet, throws her against a wall one day, “like a hurricane throws a house”, we recognise Velvet’s own dangerous potency.
The Mare is a novel about children growing up and grown-up children, daughters in particular. It abounds with references and allusions to fictional children’s stories: The Velveteen Rabbit; National Velvet; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; The Princess Diaries. At times, the boundaries between the real and the fictional dissolve, as Ginger briefly acknowledges: “It was like we were both living a dream we had known from television and advertisements and children’s books, a dream that neither of us had believed in yet had both longed for without knowing it. A dream in which love and happiness were the norm.” Except they’re not.
Velvet’s ultimate ambition to triumph at the horse show is a plotline straight out of countless comics and books beloved by generations of pre-teen girls, in which a gutsy but disadvantaged outsider overcomes all odds and steals first prize from the beautiful, rich, immaculately attired, expensively trained frontrunner. Gaitskill respects the rules of the genre, but adds a psychological twist that saves it from pastiche: for Velvet, the actual adversary is not another rider, but her own mother, whose voice she must silence if she is to achieve her goal. The Mare is a dark, dreamlike novel, at times nightmarish, at others offering glimpses of the sublime, shocking in its raw depiction of violence, and beautiful in its evocation of flawed love.
The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill, Serpent’s Tail, RRP£14.99 / Pantheon, RRP$26.95, 448 pages
Rebecca Abrams is author of ‘Touching Distance’ (Picador)
Illustration by Cat O’Neil