Horses. They're an integral part of our national mythology. The cowboys rode them; the West was settled behind them; they pulled the plows that turned so many American farm fields. And they're a not small part of our national literature, either. From Laura Ingalls Wilder and Anna Sewell to Cormac McCarthy, horses epitomize our majestic and hardworking self-image.
"Horsefever," Lee Hope's debut novel, is another installment in the mythmaking of the American horse. It tells the story of two marriages set against the backdrop of the highly competitive and class-oriented world of equestrian show jumping. Nikki Swenson is a gifted rider with a wealthy husband and a stable of fine horses. It's her ambition to become better than gifted; she wants to be world-class. Enter Gabe, a former rider now half-paralyzed after a fall many years earlier, who will train Nikki and her horse with an eye on making her an elite jumper.
But if Gabe has one eye on Nikki's career, he has the other on her bedroom, a place he's intent on getting to. Of course, this doesn't sit well with Gabe's wife, Carla, or Nikki's husband, Cliff, who hired Gabe in the first place and whose sixth sense regarding the horse trainer and his wife becomes an ominous, if not sometimes heavy-handed, foreshadowing of the drama to come.
It's a delicious entanglement, and as the stakes in Nikki's career and love life escalate, the reader ought to relish in the heightened drama. But there's a problem with this novel. For all its moral ambiguity, "Horsefever" doesn't ask enough of its reader. All too often, Hope imagines a scene ripe with complexity only to explain the metaphor or the meaning. And as the novel moves toward its inevitable and tragic end, most of the existential weight of the book has been swallowed up by the author's penchant to declare her intentions.
Near the end of the novel, Nikki wakes from a dream in which a "disembodied voice" tells her to " 'Follow the spirit.' Follow which spirit where? … Now, lying in bed, she visualizes [Cliff's] spirit, hard, yet vulnerable, like when he nursed the mare's broken leg."
Had Hope let the reader make the connection between Cliff's spirit and his healing the mare, the moment might have succeeded. But as is, this reader felt simply too directed by the author's own voice. And it's a voice that appears all too often.
Where Hope shines is in her treatment of the horses. Their beauty and elegance as she describes them is often resplendent and understated, a lovely combination.
Peter Geye is a writer in Minneapolis. His third novel, "Wintering," will be published in June.