Review: The Mare by Mary Gaitskill


A new novel from the onetime bad girl of American letters is disarmingly big-hearted, empathetic and moving – and haunted by past fictions

The Mare

The Mare

In Mary Gaitskill’s new novel – her first in a decade – a childless middle-class couple in New York joins up to the Fresh Air Fund, a charity which temporarily assigns disadvantaged young people to families who can give the children a short stint away from home – a glimpse of a different life. It’s either a generous and selfless act or, in the acerbic words of one of The Mare’s supporting characters, “an easy way to play at being a parent”. This tension between Ginger and Paul’s wish to “do right”, and their uneasy acknowledgement that looking after 11 year-old Velveteen Vargas for the summer is a test-run for adoption, “to see what it might be like to have somebody else’s fully formed kid around”, will haunt the rest of this powerful and moving novel.

I can’t think of a book that depicts so subtly and convincingly the maturing of its central character over the course of 450 pages

From this initial small disjuncture, Gaitskill builds out a story of increasing moral complexity and ambiguity. The truth is that Velvet is not a fully formed girl, but she will start to become so over the course of the book. In a series of short chapters (most two or three pages, none longer than five) Velvet and Ginger tell their sides of the story, joined as the book progresses by Ginger’s straying husband Paul, Velvet’s tough-as-old-boots mother Silvia – a single parent from the Dominican Republic who is quick to anger and quicker to inflict violence on her children – and a handful of other characters. With perhaps the exception of Paul, they’re all strong, but Velvet’s voice is the most compelling: I can’t think of a book that depicts so subtly and convincingly the maturing of its central character over the course of 450 pages. At the start of the book, Velvet’s view of the world is a child’s one – “Her hair looked like Barbie-doll hair”, she notes of Ginger – but by its closing pages, as eighteen months have passed and Velvet is becoming a young woman, her straightforward and declarative statements have become murkier, more self-aware, and more uncertain. A third of the way through the book, as she sees the immaculate house of another white couple, friends of Paul and Ginger’s, she disconcertingly asks, “‘Why is that white people can walk their path in a way that black people – and people of my color – cannot?’” And when, now almost a teenager, she catches the attention of a boy she likes, she “flashe[s] hard-sick” and sees that “[h]is look was not candy. It was tight and hot, joking and serious. Like a song I never heard before.’” Still forming, Velvet is becoming aware that certainties are childish things, and adult life is riven with ambiguities, mixed feelings, dualities that are hard to reconcile (“joking and serious”), necessary botches.

Such worries plague Ginger, too: initial innocent pleasure at being able to provide for the young girl is gradually occluded as she grasps the enormity of the task she has taken on. There are no sudden switchbacks, just a subtle, steady accumulation of information that changes her outlook. In the first blush of optimism about what she is doing, she suggests at one stage that the entire Vargas family might move to her Red Hook neighbourhood; later, when Velvet asks if she might come and love with Ginger, she can only say, “‘Honey … I don’t think you’d really want that.’”

The UK cover of The Mare, published by Serpent's Tail

The UK cover of The Mare, published by Serpent’s Tail

What gives this compulsively readable novel some of its power is its mixing of the tropes of children’s or YA fiction with those of “adult” fiction. The former informs its set pieces, which are at times a little pat; when Velvet is introduced to the beautiful but untameable mare Fugly Girl, a particular kind of plot arc becomes inevitable even before the girl rechristens the horse the more palatable Fiery Girl. It culminates in a denouement in which Velvet, participates in a riding contest, despite the risk she will be thrown by her unruly charge, watched by the novel’s ensemble cast who have set aside their various differences temporarily. Perhaps it’s churlish to call out an riding-themed novel for including such tropes, however, and it’s partly due to their inclusion that The Mare comes to have such a feel of the timeless classic about it (sporadic references to pop culture – J-Lo’s hair, Velvet’s alleged resemblance to Rihanna – and to world events like the destruction of the World Trade Center seem almost rudely contemporary). Amusingly, too, Gatskill’s novel acknowledges its equestrian-fiction forebears: Velvet’s name nods to National Velvet, while Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty is both mentioned in the fiction (Velvet writes a “stilted” book report on it) and in the fact that Ginger shares her name with one of that book’s well-natured horses.

Towards the end of the book, I began to feel bereft at the prospect of losing these characters’ company

This latter is a feint: Velvet may note that Ginger is “always nice, even when she [gets] mad”, but Ginger’s own narrative shows she’s as damaged and capable of inflicting pain as Silvia is. A recovering alcoholic, Ginger deliberately seeks out her old AA meeting to reconnect with an old partner; as her relationship with the Vargases goes off the rails, she gives in to her worst instincts and yields to the more or less overt accusations throughout that her professed love for Velvet, a “manipulative kid” in others’ eyes, is false consciousness, an artefact of “white guilt” that means she herself is racist (“At least now I know”, she laments, at lowest ebb). Yet this is a book in which no conclusion is allowed to stand very long: The Mare’s initial YA-ish air of moral certainties – Silvia is a bad mother, Ginger a do-gooder who may do silly things but for noble reasons – gives way to something much more interesting, ambivalent, and messy. The same process enables Gaitskill to highlight the similarities in seemingly disparate characters, and at the same time to be unswervingly compassionate for them all. Stable owner Beverly, for instance, is allotted a single point-of-view chapter which, in barely 200 words, not only lays bare her psychology and transforms her from a somewhat one-note villain into a tragic figure, but aligns her with the book’s other characters in a kind of spectrum of moralities: Beverly’s ostensible cruelty to her horses resembles Silvia’s blunt approach to disciplining her children, while her sliver of self-loathing links her to Ginger’s worries about her reasons for quasi-adopting Velvet.

“Mistake, mistake, mistake,” she mutters afterwards, and her decision will have highly damaging consequences

I was sufficiently engaged by the halfway mark that I started to feel queasy at its characters’ bad decisions – Paul begins an affair, Ginger – a recovering alcoholic – orders a single Cosmopolitan with dinner (“Mistake, mistake, mistake,” she mutters afterwards, and her decision will have highly damaging consequences). Worst of all, we see Velvet, old enough at 13 to know what her body is capable of but psychologically too immature to understand how she might be manipulated, flirt with bad-boy Dominic and falls in with an especially bad crowd. As these characters motor towards potentially irremediable disaster, I was reminded of the experience of reading Thomas Hardy, the fatalism of the novels in which I find myself pleading with characters not to do this or that (usually not to send a letter; The Mare’s mistakes are more speedily enacted, but no less damaging).

It’s a compelling enough story that I was surprised by a strange moment of special pleading in which Gaitskill has Paul tell Velvet’s story to his lover, “a National Guardswoman who’d driven a supply truck in Iraq”, no less, who proceeds to cry over how “very moving” it is. Later, by contrast, Velvet’s brother Dante splendidly, and only slightly metatextually, skewers Ginger’s pretensions: “That lady you know is a nonfiction bitch!”

Towards the end of the book, I began to feel bereft at the prospect of losing these characters’ company. This comes as Velvet, at 13 nearly but not quite yet fully formed, acknowledges she will soon have to relinquish, maybe forever, the people (and animals) who have helped her become so. The Mare is a novel with a horse’s heart, huge and thorny. C

Neil Stewart is the author of The Glasgow Coma Scale, published by Corsair