An 11-year-old Dominican girl from Brooklyn spends two weeks in upstate New York, where she discovers an affinity for horses and learns that she is a natural equestrian, a skill she cultivates over the next few years under the sponsorship of a white, middle-class benefactress and over the objections of her immigrant mother. This, in one sentence, is the plot of The Mare, the new novel by Mary Gaitskill, whose reputation for tough, edgy fiction began with her debut story collection Bad Behavior in 1988 and who has since maintained it by tackling daring subject matter in bold, unsentimental and stylistically innovative ways.
The Mare, at first glance, would seem to be a departure; its situation invites sentimentality and clichés. Gaitskill’s strategy is to acknowledge them unapologetically to explore deeper themes of race, social class and the nature of altruism. It’s not that the story is unimportant to Gaitskill—recent interviews reveal that she came to horseback riding just lately, in her mid-50’s, and the novel resonates with her emotional investment in the world of horses and their caretakers. She writes of the animals with tenderness and empathy and marvels at their interaction with trainers and riders. But the “troubled girl redeemed by her love for a horse” trajectory of the plot nearly overshadows the thornier issues Gaitskill raises.
Gaitskill intentionally calls readers’ attention to what is familiar and predictable in her story. The epigraph comes from Enid Bagnold’s classic National Velvet, and the young protagonist is called Velvet. The mare she trains is named “Fiery Girl”; Velvet herself is fiery, known at school as a “ferocious fighter.” Both girl and mare have been victims of abuse, but they are mutually rehabilitated by their bond; both become more confident, more tractable, more disciplined, truer to what is best within them. And lest the reader miss it, Gaitskill underscores the homophone of the title: Velvet comes in contact with several women, each of whom, in her own way, acts as a mother to her. There is Silvia, her birth mother, tyrannical and frightened; Ginger, her sponsor, well-intentioned and sincere but intensely self absorbed; Miss Pat, the no-nonsense barn manager who recognizes and nurtures Velvet’s potential; and Gaby, a neighborhood eccentric who protects Velvet and dispenses wisdom. Each functions as la mère to Velvet.
The story progresses in short chapters narrated from different points of view, most often Velvet’s and Ginger’s, less frequently from the welcome perspectives of Paul, Ginger’s skeptical but patient husband, and Silvia, both critical observers who, peripheral to the main action, can offer more objective accounts than either Velvet or Ginger. For Velvet, Gaitskill creates a voice that is vibrant and authentic despite bursts of improbable precocity. Initially suspicious of glossy brochures showing “white people on some grass hugging dark children,” Velvet is street smart and resourceful, a “manipulative” kid, in Paul’s view. She has to be in order to survive a neighborhood where acquaintances are routinely lost to prison or violence and a home where her mother wields a slipper like a club to affirm authority over a daughter she fears she is losing to “some fool woman [who] has made her into a pet.”
Velvet’s uncanny intuition, about both humans and horses, can strain credibility, as when she detects fissures in Paul and Ginger’s marriage long before Ginger does, or during the several “horse whisperer” moments Gaitskill gives her. But Velvet’s voice is most affecting in descriptions of her burgeoning sexuality and in her imperfect attempts to articulate the horse-human connection, something that, as many riders will attest, may lie beyond the power of language to express.
Ginger is a trickier character. At first she seems noble and philanthropic, and her good wishes and affection for Velvet are never in doubt. But her motives are questionable. In recovery from addictions to drugs and alcohol, Ginger finds her life comfortable but empty because she has never had children, and this is her greatest regret. Sheltering Velvet for a few weeks a year allows her to “play at being a mother,” in her snooty neighbors’ disapproving but not inaccurate terms. Full of insecurity and disappointment, Ginger thinks she sees in Velvet “an enchanted hunger,” but the hunger is her own. She romanticizes her effect on Velvet; she perceives Velvet’s eyes “golden and shining, like she was in a scene from something on TV.” Reading Velvet to sleep, Ginger convinces herself she is “living a dream she had seen from…advertisements and children’s books.” The first Christmas she hosts Velvet brings her “own childhood…to life again.”
When Paul observes something “unnerving” and “fevered” in Ginger’s interest, she remonstrates, “Can’t you see how good this is for me?” And when Velvet achieves success, Ginger is filled with “vindicated joy”—she has been proven right, after all. Inarguably, Ginger opens new worlds to Velvet, but there is something discomfiting about Ginger’s largesse. She is the well-meaning white liberal whose service to the underclass is ultimately all about herself. Ginger does the right thing for the wrong reason.
Ginger’s unconscious condescension can be shocking. When she first meets Velvet’s mother, Ginger likens her to “an orangutan.” Ginger contemplates uprooting Silvia and Velvet’s younger brother from Brooklyn so that Velvet can spend more time at the barn—and so that Ginger can spend more time with Velvet. Ginger rationalizes, “Mexicans live here. I see them mostly working in restaurants. If she [Silvia] cleaned houses, she could make at least ten dollars an hour.” Silvia has no interest in cleaning houses. In the novel’s most disconcerting passage, Ginger generalizes about the people in Velvet’s community: “Maybe they really are different from us, more violent, more dishonest…nicer in some ways, yes, warm, physical, passionate. But weak-minded…no self-control.” Her association with Velvet, benevolent as it is, awakens a latent bigotry.
Is it ever truly possible to bridge differences of ethnicity and economic status? Does an implicit superiority taint every act of charity? Can altruism ever be completely free of self-interest? While it is easy to be inspired and heartened by the transformation Velvet undergoes and the empowerment she acquires in her work with horses, these are the provocative and disquieting questions that linger at the end of The Mare.