‘The Sport of Kings’ is a book that demands attention. It stood out in the Bailey’s shortlist due to its size – at 560 pages it physically dwarfs all the other nominees; it also probably has my favourite cover on the list (not that literary prizes should be judged along these criteria). From the sheer grandeur of its physical presence, Morgan’s novel is an exciting prospect; when you consider it’s also been shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize, the James Tait Black Fiction Prize, was a Pulitzer finalist and won the Kirkus Fiction Prize the weight of expectation increases yet further.
Along with ‘weighty,’ ‘ambitious’ is probably the adjective most used to describe the book in the reviews I’ve read. It’s certainly a word that kept returning to me as I planned this post. Morgan’s novel has an epic scope, starting with a boy running away from his father through the green corn of their Kentucky farm and then following the themes of escaping and breeding, land and the American Dream through hundreds of breathless pages. It’s not long after this aborted flight that the young Henry Forge finds his vocation, he is determined to abandon his father’s lifestyle as a gentleman farmer and set up as a horse breeder.
This is only a part of the novel. Later sections will concentrate on Henry’s beloved daughter and the stranger who threatens to destroy their disturbing, claustrophobic relationship. Interrupting each long chapter are interludes which will teach you more than you might expect about horse breeding and the insidious ways in which the sport can be read as a commentary on American history and society.
‘Ultimately you may breed for color just as you may breed for conformation, speed strength, &etc, but the organism itself exerts no will to form. The natural dispersal of color is neither random nor intentional. Which is all to say there may be tyrants with no ambition for power.’
The quotation above came from the first interlude (between chapter 1: The Strange Family of Things’ and chapter 2: ‘The Spirit of Lesser Animals’). It is possible to read the whole novel as one man’s quest for the perfect horse – who arrives about half way through the book ‘inbred to perfection‘ – but I can’t imagine anyone wishing to so limit themselves. As the layers build up, the legacy of slavery overshadowing the rhetoric of evolutionary superiority and ideas of taming and breaking applying to humans as much as to horses, it is a testament to Morgan’s writing that the novel doesn’t implode with its own cleverness.
With so much going on, it may have been inevitable that some characters and ideas work better than others (I think this may be why the word ‘ambitious’ is so appropriate to describe the overall effect). The sincerity and skill of the novel however keep it on track and give it the momentum so demanded by the title and topic. The novel sets a high bar for itself and, by implication, for its fellows on the Bailey’s shortlist. I’m very interested to see what Morgan will write next, and what the judges’ final verdict will be on 7th June.
I received my copy of ‘The Sport of Kings’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review