The first part of my Baileys Prize musings can be found here.
So, The Sport of Kings by CE Morgan. I still haven’t absolutely made up my mind how to rank the shortlisted novels, but this is a strong contender for my favourite. As I said in my first post, I read this novel in a few huge gulps over quite a long space of time because it wouldn’t fit in my backpack. Fortunately, I think this approach suited it well. Morgan’s second novel traces two interlinked, epic narratives. The first is the story of the Forge family, important landowners in Kentucky, and especially the story of Henry Forge, who breaks away from his family’s legacy of corn farming to breed racehorses, a new endeavour which he hopes to bequeath to his daughter Henrietta. Evolutionary imagery dominates the novel from the start – Morgan uses a number of quotations from On the Origin of Species as chapter epigraphs – underwriting the Forges’ violently racist views and actions as well as Henry’s conception of his destiny. The second starts with Allmon Shaughnessy, a mixed-race boy growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, divided from Kentucky by the Ohio River – famously crossed by escaping slaves in the nineteenth century, as it formed part of the border between free states and slave states. Allmon’s life, brutally hard because of his race and poverty, is tied into a wider history of white supremacy and black subjugation in the United States, as Morgan intersperses interludes about former slaves fleeing slavery. This legacy of historical violence against the bodies of black people sits in opposition to the teleological and misunderstood evolutionary beliefs held by the Forges: as Henry believes, ‘evolution is a ladder to perfection… You can chart the development of the horse right up the ladder.’
[Spoilers for the first half of The Sport of Kings follow.]
I have rarely found anything as emotionally difficult to read as Allmon’s section of the narrative (although Hanya Yanighara’s A Little Life is probably up there, and Lionel Shriver’s So Much For All That is as excruciatingly right about US healthcare). Allmon grows up under the care of his mother, Marie, who struggles to provide for her son after she develops lupus – a disease which disproportionately affects black women – which puts her in incredible, relentless pain. Her symptoms start when Allmon is ten, but told by the doctor that, without health insurance (‘she made just barely too much to qualify for Medicaid but couldn’t afford private insurance – not that they’d insure her now anyway’), she can’t afford the treatment she needs. ‘I’m just a doctor,’ he says. ‘I didn’t make the system and I can’t change it.‘ Marie loses her welfare benefits because she’s kept hold of her one asset, a car, so Allmon gets involved in drug running to make some money for the household. Eventually, he makes enough to take her to another doctor, who tells him that ‘your mother has a lot of the soft criteria for lupus, but not the hard criteria.’ He can’t give her a diagnosis, so she won’t qualify for disability benefits. Allmon gets into a prestigious athletics school, but, still a teenager, is arrested for being on the scene of a riot and ends up in prison for two years. Once he gets out, his mother is dying. She is eventually rushed to hospital, despite her protests that an ambulance costs ‘a thousand dollars’.
‘But by then it was too late. His mother’s kidneys had failed, and she died under the care of the shocked ER physician, who took one look at the lupoid lesions that had ravaged her neck and torso, and said with his hand over his surgical mask, “Jesus Christ. Who let this happen to her?’
To which the only answer can be: all of you. All of us.
I agree with Naomi Frisby that The Sport of Kings is too long; nevertheless, I think all the ground it covers is essential, to fully position these two competing historical stories about inheritance and to finally demolish Henry’s supremacist views about the quest for perfection in a conversation with local vet Lou:
“[The] horse was the remnant of an evolutionary failure. …”
“An evolutionary failure.”
“Well, yes,” said Lou, clearing her throat. “It’s really the first thing you learn when you study evolution in school…”
“Evolution is a ladder,” whispered Henry, “a ladder to a perfect thing.”
“Actually, no, not really.” Lou shook her head quizzically… “It’s not a ladder. It’s more like… a bush… Think of it as a branching bush. A great, endlessly diversifying bush that gets stronger with each new branch, each new variation.”
The Sport of Kings is filled with its oppressive atmosphere, its ambitious thematic reach and its exuberant storytelling; it’s messy, too wordy, and untidy at the edges, but then, that seems to have been precisely what Morgan was going for.
From the longest novel on the shortlist to the shortest: Gwendoline Riley’s First Love. Narrated in first person by Neve, it flashes between her present-day misery, married to an older man, Edwyn, and her past misery, finally breaking free from her bullying father to live alone in Glasgow. It’s incredibly well-written; the polar opposite of The Sport of Kings with its spare, unshowy prose. Riley hits so many nails on their heads: ‘large crows executed their leisurely inspecting strut’; ‘[the wood-pigeons’] fussy wing-slaps, like rifled cards’; ‘the sky’s cold threat.’ I think the last novel I read that was simply this well-written was Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thief.
Riley is also fantastic with dialogue; it’s wincingly realistic, far more so than most writers allow themselves. Neve and Edwyn’s endearments are embarrassingly awkward to read but recognisable: “How are your poor poorly paws?” I said… “Naughty paw.” She also uses italics liberally, especially when writing Edwyn’s or Neve’s mother’s speech, something which writers are generally discouraged from doing but which absolutely works here. Neve’s mother, indeed, is one of the best characters in the novel; not simply vicious like Edwyn or Neve’s father, she is burdensome and selfish, but still endearing. When Neve accompanies her to the cinema, this little anecdote is genuinely painful:
‘I always felt terrible when she said, of something she’d looked forward to, and with only just a shade less brightness to her voice, that it had been “Not what I expected.”‘
Riley brings her to life with just a few scatters of sentences like these. She texts Neve: ‘CUT ALL MY HAIR OFF DO YOU WANT BRUSH AND BOBBLES ETC. MUM.’ “So yes, I thought, I’ve got this hairbrush now that I don’t need and these bobbles, so…” “I have got my own hairbrush, thanks,” Neve tells her.
First Love is a brilliant snapshot of reality. For me, it didn’t quite feel substantial enough to be my preferred winner, but then, I’ve always been especially fond of big, messy, flawed novels rather than beautifully precise short ones.