The Sport of Kings: Shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction 2017
By C. E. Morgan
Shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for FictionFinalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize Shortlisted for the James Tait Black Fiction Prize Winner of the Kirkus fiction prize Tweet
This is a beautifully written novel, almost painfully so. It screams the new ' Great American Novel'. Indeed it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
I think I have been spoilt by thrillers and crime as I found this very slow, wonderful detailed descriptions. Minutiae but I wanted to get on with the plot!
It covers a lot of American history but I also found myself getting lost. It would have been useful to have dates .
And there was an awful lot about horses........
This is a bold and ambitious work, which highlights many themes and investigates some of them in the telling of the Forge family saga. Using flashbacks, cutaways, stories within stories and rich prose, the author takes us on a journey to the Southern United States. Ostensibly about horse racing, this is really a novel about family, identity, race and isolation. Considering the fast moving events in real life, the book's key theme about the dangers of isolation is timely.
The way that isolation is thoroughly built into each main character's life is shrewd and skilful. When a specific time period is referenced, particularly in the beginning, I mentally blinked and rifled through some pages to double check I hadn't missed something. It's at this point I realised that the author wanted to tell us something about race and how we have and continue to treat 'others'.
I enjoyed the book almost all the way through, and felt very much that I was in the deep American south. The prose is very rich - which while interesting, sometimes isn't helpful when reading to a deadline. I may benefit from a more leisurely second read. However, when a twist around a key character is shared with the reader, I admit I hit a wall and almost immediately put down the book. I picked it up again but crucially almost all my interest had gone. That others who read the book shared my frustration was heartening (I wasn't alone), it did make me reflect on why my reaction was so strong and what a reader expects in this day and age of self improvement, 'going on a journey' and technological self expression. That one character was transformed was interesting, that it wasn't the one you were rooting for disappointing.
The other issue I struggled with was the complete lack of acknowledgement of change (technological, personal, social) by the characters. Although set against the present day in parts, the isolation prevalent in the main character is understandable, less so in his daughter, who defies him by loving another. This new relationship (a change!) would have been an excellent way to push and provoke the characters into reflecting what they are doing and why. Some of this does occur but the characters then don't seem to react to this extra layer of information and insight. The evolution of the characters is harder to understand as a result, especially so for the main character: it feels weak as prior to this, everything, including his daughter, is about Henry.
To say that our book club enjoyed this book would be a little bold, but it did force us to have the most lively conversation in recent months. In this respect, the book is perhaps more successful than we give it credit for: our outrage at some of the decisions and twists in the book mean we may not have liked it but were certainly engaged with it and the author has created a work that has and will continue to provoke conversation.
This is a book that deserves to be read slowly. The prose is dense and rich. The descriptions and metaphors have a uniqueness that makes you look at common things in a new light. There are no clichés. Patterns resonate from one character to themselves years later so it is sometimes worth referring back. Its a book about generations, about the gaps that appear between people, about control, and like many of its other themes, it comes at these all from many different angles.
The style is ambitious. The author experiments with the flow of time, so seasons can pass through a single conversation, and others are frozen like a tableau. There are many links and parallels but they need to be teased and uncovered. For some this may be too much and hinders the story, but for others it makes it a very rewarding book.
Found the book as others, slow to begin, but once a few chapters it had a captivating quality. The characters had depth though none seemed to have any joy, a collection of trials of the human condition in various walks of life, an interesting read.
I had a bit of a roller coaster ride with this novel. After a slow start, by the mid point I was ploughing through it wanting to know what was going to happen before finding my enthusiasm dip again towards the end. Others have mentioned it as being an epic novel and I would agree with that, covering family history and some huge issues with incredibly dark and distressing subject matter such as slavery, racism, incest, domestic violence, inequality. The characters lives were mostly bleak, and there was little humour which I found interesting, I wonder if this was due to the authors determination to get important themes covered leaving little space for lighter moments.
A slow burn to begin then galloping through Southern American history exposing many issues, perhaps too many. Sadly, the character I least liked is left standing to shape the future generation. My preference would have been the other main characters to evolve and overcome their past.
I read this as part of the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction shadowing experience. I was disappointed not to enjoy it very much. Morgan chucks just about every style of writing into the mix (1st, 2nd and 3rd person plus script and extracts of supposed source texts) and it felt overwritten. At one point the author addresses the reader saying “is this prose to purple for you?” and I thought, “yes, yes, it is”. A similar ‘get out’ is used when one character accuses another of acting like a stereotype and he is because the plot requires him to do so. Key for me, along with dis-satisfaction about the writing style, was that the author’s ideas are explored through isolated characters who, while clearly drawn, do not feel fully rounded.
However, the ideas are interesting and what does work about the book is exploring genetics, evolution and race relations using the allegory of the breeding of race horses. Also, that some powerful moments really bring home both the hideousness of slavery as lived experience and how the effects have lingered through the generations in the USA.
The Sport of Kings is not my pick for the winner of the Baileys Prize more than anything because it feels like a man’s book about men. The through thread is a very traditional one of two different men heading for a clash at the end.
Of all the books on the #BaileysPrize 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 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.
Wow - this was an epic read in no mistake and Morgan really has a genius for making you feel like you are in Kentucky as you read this, but I didn't get close to any of the characters and as a result of this lack of involvement I didn't enjoy it as much as I'd hoped. The graphic descriptions and the racism, sexism were very powerful but also very hard to read.
I'm glad I read it but it isn't a favourite.