The brilliantly gifted novelist Mary Gaitskill, whose novel Veronica was a finalist for The National Book Award some years ago, and which showcased the greed and narcissism of the 1980s through the character of a high fashion New York model, has returned with her equally impressive The Mare. The Mare’s a long novel, centered around the character of Velvet, an inner-city child of about ten, when first introduced, who heads to Dutchiss County, New York (the one north of Westchester County, north of New York City), on a two week visit to ‘the country’ courtesy of The Fresh Air Fund (and yes, the name Velvet does relate to National Velvet, the movie that brought the actress Elizabeth Taylor to the public’s attention). With a very small cast of characters, including Ginger and Paul, the married couple who sponsor Velvet’s visit, Velvet’s mother Silvia (who speaks no English) and young brother Dante, and the horsewoman/caretaker Pat are the corps/core group in the book.
Velvet will not only fall in love with horses, there being a barn adjacent to the host sponsors’ house, but she manifests a natural ability with them, an ease with horses, and it’s clear that these magnificent animals are comfortable with her. Velvet’s mother, one of the most fascinating characters in recent fiction, has arrived in New York allegedly to wait for a husband who never arrives, and she finds herself pregnant with Velvet, whom she blames for her own miserable life, and whom she beats regularly for her ‘pride’. Gaitskill is so skilled with this mother/daughter relationship (paralleling the new one emerging between Ginger, her sponsor , and Velvet), that even with the massive amount of constant physical abuse from Silvia to Velvet, the author manages at least to let us into Silvia’s head, enabling us to feel some empathy for her, and to understand, up to a point, what her motives are in ‘disciplining’ her daughter: Gaitskill’s abilities here are an extraordinary feat, particularly in a culture so hyper-aware of child abuse. And Pat, the woman who boards others’ horses, and her colleague Beverly, a clear sadist of sorts, both also receive some empathy from their creator, Mary Gaitskill. In fact, I’d venture to say that Gaitskill’s skill at creating female characters and letting us readers into their minds and characters is as fine as any living writer’s: her great understanding of contemporary women was equally sharp and persuasive in Veronica, where she completely demystifies the life and lifestyle of a fashion model. If we consider Velvet and her mother Silvia and Velvet and her sponsor Ginger parallel concentric circles, whose edges begin to bounce against one another, and whose worlds increasingly collide as Ginger lets Velvet ride horses against her mother’s wishes and will, these two narratives overlap with increasing complexity and brilliance. Velvet also moves into early adolescence, and her small forays into the world of inner city parties and possible very casual sex is also well rendered by Gaitskill.
Of course, Velvet will eventually enter a competition, and she’ll be riding the most difficult horse in Pat’s stable,with whom she has bonded from the beginning. The finale for which we readers have waited for four hundred pages is , indeed, as moving as we’d hoped it would be. Gaitskill’s research into the world of horses and competitive jumping (and the like) is truly impressive. If there’s a weak link in the novel, it’s Ginger’s husband Paul, who’s nearly completely unsupportive of his wife Ginger’s efforts with Velvet; I suppose that some character(s) had to accuse Ginger both of slumming it, if you will, and of interfering in her bleak world back in Brooklyn. Paul’s a drip, actually, and as superbly as Gaitskill writes about women, she’s equally weak when writing about men: fortunately, Paul’s the only lead character who’s male , in this novel.
Gaitskill also skillfully weaves any number of social and psycho-social themes into the book: various women’s roles are examined (Paul and Ginger have been childless, and to what extent one can ‘borrow’ someone else’s child, particularly from a radically different background, is very much a theme of the novel. Both Ginger and Silvia, Velvet’s real mother, are, in their ways, trying to ‘shape’ Velvet’s sense of herself, so that contemporary bugaboo, self-esteem, rides hard throughout the book, both ‘mothers’ approaching that tender topic completely differently. Velvet’s a young woman of color, too, and the world of Dutchiss County is white, Republican, and full of hauteur, so that both race and gender are very much forefronted, and class runs throughout the novel. Gaitskill thus tackles all three of today’s most compelling postmodernist themes, but one never feels that one’s been preached at. Mary Gaitskill is a writer in the forefront of American fiction, and this (occasionally too long) novel is fraught with issues, but also with characters whom she understands and, in her way, fiercely defends, so that Velvet’s ultimate victory is all of theirs.