This is not your grandmother’s “National Velvet.” Although “The Mare” shares with its forebear a young protagonist named Velvet who brooks terrible odds to befriend a horse, master riding and perform brilliantly in a competition, Mary Gaitskill manages to make the parallels ironic (what could be further from the English countryside of the earlier novel than Velveteen Vargas’ volatile Dominican household in a rough corner of Brooklyn?) and piercingly poignant (what could be more universal than the painful isolation and inchoate longings of adolescence?).
Poignancy, Gaitskill’s forte, takes precedence, however, and this Velvet will break your heart. Plucked from her sordid surroundings at 11 by something called the Fresh Air Fund, Velvet finds herself in the temporary, then intermittent, care of a middle-aged white couple in suburban New York. Their childlessness is only the most visible hole in the heart of the woman, Ginger.
Ginger, whose narration alternates with Velvet’s (with others weighing in now and then), comes to the story bearing the scars and uncertainties of her own troubled youth, which her uneasy position in a community that includes her husband’s ex-wife and teenage daughter does little to alleviate. The opposite, in fact.
Gaitskill is adept at conveying how this world registers moment by moment on Ginger’s wounded soul, and on Velvet’s exquisitely receptive consciousness, and even on the tortured inner life of Mrs. Vargas, whose love is as violent as it is fierce and conflicted.
In her last novel, “Veronica,” Gaitskill found a language for the inexpressible in the form of sexuality. “The Mare” goes further and deeper to give eloquent voice to the ineffable thoughts and feelings experienced across boundaries of age and race and class and gender — and even, in this case, species.
When her rehabilitated horse comes back to the barn, Velvet says, “I could feel her shivering toward the other horses inside herself, but I pulled down on the lead and she lowered her head, sending softness and obedience to me. The air had new smells and sounds, and the horses said it with all the muscles of their backs and legs: Spring, spring, spring!”
Ginger, holding Velvet, says, “I could feel the pain beating against her body like it was too big to get out without breaking her.”
It’s done so well, you feel it, too, every slight and fear and tremor of desire. No one can speak fully or clearly to one another in this book, and yet they all communicate like crazy, with each other and with us — even to the point of a wordless epiphany. When, in the barn alone with her mare, Velvet comes to an understanding — “I am doing it for this” — she says, “If somebody asked me what this was, I wouldn’t be able to tell them. But I knew, I knew.”
Incredibly, so do we.
Ellen Akins is a writer in northern Wisconsin and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.