The Sport of Kings

C E Morgan 2016 4th Estate Books

Finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize and more recently the Goldsboro Books, Glass Bell Award (check out their awesome shortlist, 13 books including My Name is Lucy Barton and My Name is Leon – both great books reviewed here, plus Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave – a truly wonderful story set in World War 2).

But for now, The Sport of Kings, not an easy book to review and not an easy book to read ( I had it in hardback and at 545 pages really quite weighty and not great bedtime reading but hey – it’s a beautiful signed and numbered edition from Gosldsboro books so I shouldn’t really complain!)  Eliciting mixed reviews this book, ostensibly about horse racing but covering so much more it’s hard to put into words.

From the blurb –

Hellsmouth, an indomitable thoroughbred filly, runs for the glory of the forge family, one of Kentucky’s oldest and most powerful dynasties.  Henry Forge has partnered with his daughter, Henrietta, in an endeavour of raw obsession: to breed a champion.  But when Allmon Shaughnessy, an ambitious young black man, comes to work on their farm after a stint in prison, the violence of the Forges’ history and exigencies of appetite are brought starkly into view.  Entangled by fear, prejudice and lust, the three tether their personal dreams of glory to the speed and power of Hellsmouth.

And that is it, the story of the Forge family, Henry and his daughter, white, rich and powerful.  And the story of Allmon Shaughnessy, black, poor and disadvantaged.  The stories are told in long chapters which detail the wealth and the poverty, racism and the legacy of slavery, all within the context of horse racing and the drive to breed the champion racehorse.

This was a long read with a detailed story at it’s heart told over generations of white and black American history and it does this well.  The struggle I think for this book is it’s length and at times the dense and complex language, making parts of the novel difficult to comprehend.  I read every word, others may skim past some parts and still reap the benefits of what is clearly a great story.  I rated this book 3.5 stars on Goodreads ( well 3 because you can’t do halves, but you know what I mean), the story was stark and powerful and the characters strong, the author did not shy away or skirt around anything.  The book was a hard read and at times felt like a struggle, the fact that it was not always easily comprehensible to me was a negative but C.E Morgan defended the concept of a Great American Novel when asked to write the foreword for a recent reissue of William Faulkner’s Light in August and for me this is equally applicable to her own book in summing up.

Rarely neat and carefully ordered, they are neither quickly read nor readily comprehended in their full complexity….’

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