It’s become commonplace to speak of the bounty of literary presses in Minnesota. Graywolf, Milkweed, Coffee House — they’ve become synonymous with excellence. It’s time to add to that list New Rivers Press, whose string of strong titles finds its most recent addition in Siân Griffiths’ debut novel, “Borrowed Horses.”
Set in the stark landscape of the Palouse hill country in Idaho, “Borrowed Horses” tells the story of Joannie, a young woman who has made a prodigal return home after a stint on the East Coast, where she was attempting to work herself onto the Olympic equestrian team.
The novel opens at the end of Joannie’s long trip West, when her truck breaks down outside of town. A handsome and seemingly wonderful man who later seduces her comes to her aid on the roadside. Their encounter sets in motion a series of complicated and compromising relationships for Joannie, all of which test her resolve to be the woman she thinks she is.
First and foremost, Joannie is a horseback rider, one caught between her devotion to Firefox, her beloved, aging horse, and Zephyr, a wild mare that offers her a second chance. But that chance comes at the risk of betraying Firefox. It’s a simple but moving conundrum, and much of the novel focuses on Joannie’s reconciling her decision to move on from the loyal Firefox.
But horses are not her only entanglement. Her ailing mother and aging father are in no small way part of the reason she has returned, and Joannie’s dedication to them adds a deep layer to her character. So, too, does her relationship with her friends, both her long-dead but still influential childhood friend, Mouse, and her horseback-riding, beer-swilling pal Dawn, who serves as a sort of loud-mouthed moral compass.
It is the men in her life, however, who cause Joannie her greatest anguish. Dave, the man who saved her on the highway, turns out to be married to one of Joannie’s riding mates. This fact alone would be knotty enough, but he also happens to be psychologically dangerous and manipulative, and he foils any happiness Joannie might find with her other suitors, including Timothy, a man who literally dreams himself into her life.
Griffiths’ great accomplishment in dealing with the men in Joannie’s life is that she manages to be sympathetic to both Joannie’s physical desires (many of which are described in sensual detail) and her almost feminist nature. What Joannie discovers through much trial and error is that balance can only be found in the middle. In this way, and in many others, life is like riding a horse.
Peter Geye is at work on a sequel to his latest novel, “The Lighthouse Road,” a World Book Night USA 2014 selection. He lives in Minneapolis.