The Sport of Kings - Baileys Prize under the spotlight

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The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in writing by women in English from throughout the world.

In this series of articles we will look at each of the six shortlisted titles in detail, but you can also see an overview of the full shortlist.

The Sport of Kings

Hellsmouth, a wilful thoroughbred filly, has the legacy of the Forges family riding on her. They are one of the oldest and proudest families in Kentucky; descended from the first settlers to brave the Wilderness Road; as mythic as the history of the South itself and now, first-time horse breeders.

Through an act of naked ambition, Henry Forge is attempting to blaze this new path on the family’s crop farm. His daughter, Henrietta, becomes his partner in the endeavour but has desires of her own. When Allmon Shaughnessy, an African American man fresh from prison, comes to work in the stables, the ugliness of the farm’s history rears its head.

Together through sheer will, the three stubbornly try to create a new future – one that isn’t determined by Kentucky’s bloody past – while they mould Hellsmouth into a champion.

About the author

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C. E. Morgan is the author of All the Living (2009) and a recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award. In 2010, she was named by The New Yorker as one of their 20 writers under 40. She lives in Kentucky.

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What our readers thought

12 of our brilliant reading groups have been shadowing the Prize this year, alongside three dedicated Library Ambassadors. Here are some of their experiences:

Our Book Group

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“Our Book Group met to discuss The Sport of Kings in a recent find, The Dolphin pub near King’s Cross, with its interesting drinks selection and tasty Thai food. The meal and discussion were topped off by sharing the box of Baileys truffles.

Three members had read the whole book, one was very close to the end and two had only read the first section. Sam and Tel had each raced through the novel quickly with Sam saying that she was desperate to find out what happened. Gail described ‘hitting a wall’ at one point due to being cross at what had happened with the character of Henrietta and with Allmon’s lack of questioning key information but she had found her way again. Donna had found it page-turning at times but too long overall.

Some had found it a little hard to get started. Tel commented that the first section felt like the start of a standard family saga but then the novel changed direction. Athos suggested that the character of Henry was ‘clearly going to go on a journey’ and we considered it no spoiler to confirm that he was right.

Athos, who is a poet, was excited about the language used in the novel but Donna felt it was overwritten and that (as the author suggests in the book) the prose tended towards purple. Most had found it easy to read once into it although one confessed to skipping some lengthy passages to get on with the story.

There was a general feeling that Henrietta’s character and motivations were interesting but then frustration at her ultimate purpose in the book. There was also a feeling that all the characters were clearly drawn in many ways but that, while their isolation was important to the characterisation, this perhaps went too far with them seeming to be in a bubble. Also, Henry and Henrietta’s feelings about key circumstances were not discussed in the novel, which was frustrating for many. Donna speculated on the connection between the central relationships being all about genetics and the author having two secondary characters be gay and wanted to think about this further.

Gail particularly commented on the impressive range of themes covered in the book including; evolution and genetics, slavery, race, incest, poverty, the criminal justice system, the USA health care system…and more. Sam expressed a strong wish to learn more about the author and why she had come to write a book like this. She summed the book up as: ‘working hard towards being epic but perhaps trying to cover too much in one novel’. Tash considers it a ‘book of sad truths’.

Library Ambassador Sarah

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“My fourth Baileys Prize read was the massive tome Sport of Kings. 500+ pages set in and around a ranch in Kentucky that raises race horses. The book covers many themes including (but not limited to) racism, sexism, evolution, horse breeding and slavery. The prose is dense, rich and flowery. It is being billed as a modern American classic.

For me it felt a bit of a slog to get through. The basic storylines were all great and I wanted to know more about all of the characters but the language and the style just kept bogging me down and disappointingly the slow build was ruined by a too fast ending. I also just didn’t quite buy the main twist.

I admire this book without loving it, the racism and sexism alienated me and I never felt close to the characters – it was like they were all behind a pane of glass. I’m glad that the Baileys Prize introduced me to this book, I’d never have read it otherwise and there is much to admire."

Library Ambassador Lara

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“Of all the books on the Baileys Prize shortlist this year, this one lends itself to be described most suitably as an ‘epic’. A family saga that follows the Forges through three generations. Linked into the main character of Henry Forge are horses and not just any horses, thoroughbred horses, racing horses. Henry becomes obsessed with the very best of horses and breeding them from an early age and wants to completely renovate the family farm to create a stud farm. He eventually realises his dream and is assisted by his grown daughter Henrietta and a black groom fresh from prison, Allmon. As the three lives intertwine in an attempt to create a new super-horse and win the Kentucky Derby, events don’t go according to plan.

The ‘Southerness’ of this book is undeniable and I could not help but imagine the dialogue read in a long Kentucky drawl that transported you right into the heat, wide fields and white supremacy of an old time. There are, of course, the inevitable comparisons with other southern classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, as there are moments in the narrative when racism and morality are questioned even though it was a norm. Parts when you hear the thoughts and reasoning of the characters that are stuck in bigotry and reel against it.

There are many disturbing aspects to this book as stories linked into all three main characters, over many generations, rise and fall through the clever and thoughtful narrative. Slavery, racism, brutality, class, poverty, incest, abuse…but throughout these dark and taboo subjects I didn’t feel that this was a depressing book. I felt that it was more of an account or cautionary tale of lives that went down the wrong paths whether it be through choice or no fault of their own.

Ultimately, a tale of redemption and emphasising the importance of always being open to new ways of thinking. The new life of Henry’s grandchild towards the end of the book represents a fresh start, a new leaf and that there is always a time to change into something better."

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