Thank you to Netgalley and 4th Estate for providing me a copy of this ebook for review.
I have never experienced such a turbulent combination of (or at times the lack of) emotions as I did whilst reading this book. I still can’t really tell you whether I liked it or not.
Firstly, let me prelude my lukewarm review by saying that I can totally see why a lot of people are really liking this book. I thought I would be one of them. Morgan is undeniably a very talented writer, and you can tell a lot went in to this novel. In fact, I even think it has a good chance of winning the Bailey’s Prize this year (of which I only have ‘The Dark Circle’ left to read from the shortlist!) I’m also big enough to note that this book is probably too clever for me. This is probably one of the most ‘literary’ fiction novels I have read. So take my opinions with a pinch of salt, as always.
‘The Sport of Kings’ is a well written tale spanning several generations of the thoroughbred racehorse raising Forge family. The novel is deeply seated in it’s Kentuckian setting, the Forges’ as dynastic as Southern families come. Luckily, it isn’t actually that much about sport at all, and thankfully so, as I bloody hate horse racing and may have liked this even less.
Anyway, the book is actually quite important. It looks at the history of racial tensions specifically in Southern America, the importance of recognising privilege, and is otherwise just a fairly well crafted read about a mostly despicable family and a father’s obsession with leaving a legacy.
At around 35% of the way through this book I was all for abandoning it. I’ve gotten a lot better at DNF’ing books I just can’t gel with, and I was on my way to doing just that. The problem was, I hated all the characters I’d encountered up to that point. They were a bunch of entitled, rich, racist, sexist assholes basically. Now, usually I am quite partial to reading about horrendous characters doing questionable things, it can often make for quite delicious reading. But in this case, each character had little to no redeemable qualities, so much so that I just didn’t find myself wanting to continue reading in order to avoid hearing about them. The book is mostly written in third person, and I think this actually deepened the issue I had. Although the writing is often rich and descriptive, we get a look at the characters only really at face value. We are never privy to their innermost thoughts, their true feelings and motives. This just further distanced me from people I couldn’t empathise with in the least.
Then along comes Allmon Shaughnessy, a young black man (with an absent, white father and a criminal past), who is hired by Henrietta Forge to work on their estate. All of a sudden, I was intrigued. It genuinely felt like I’d stumbled into a different book. An encounter with a character I liked, a character I began to feel for. Up until this point I felt the writing was impersonal, I constantly felt held at a distance by the story, but it grew to be full of emotion. Allmon even helped me warm to Henrietta, as the tension between them quickened the pace of this (in my opinion) overly long novel, I wanted to read on as these characters were finding something in each other. However, a while after that, the plot takes a sudden turn, it starts to get a little bit Shakespearean tragedy, and it started to go downhill again for me.
Having finished the book now (it only took 5 days but it felt a lot longer), I can say that the actual bones of the story, I loved. I just think Morgan was being overly ambitious with what she was trying to cram in. All the individual stories fighting for a place on the page felt murky. There are only 6 dense chapters split up with interludes between each one that I thought were pointless and just over complicated an already crowded narrative. So much didn’t need to be there. I’m all for showing your skill but strip it back and you’d still have a really clever and important story, the characters could have been nuanced and I might have actually given a shit or two.
I want to end with mentioning that I still feel pretty uncomfortable with a white writer featuring the ‘n’ word in her story this many times, no matter what the context. Black voices need to be heard, and we need more of them in fiction no question, but I would rather read about them from the perspective of people of colour. Maybe it’s just my white guilt making me feel uncomfortable about this, but still.
Essentially, I’m very conflicted about this book. I’m glad I finished it, but it was never a book I would have persevered with if it hadn’t been on the Baileys shortlist.
Have any of you read it? I would really like to hear your thoughts on this one.