Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction Longlist 2017
The library’s comment on The Sport of Kings was ‘a story about two totally different men, bound by their love for horses and racing. This comment hardly does this novel any justice. Those who expect a dramatic story about the impossible friendship between two men will be disappointed. I suspect they will put away the novel after some 20 pages. Not only because the subject appears to be something entirely different, also because C.E. Morgan’s writing is definitely on the difficult side.
The Sport of Kinds is an epic novel on the effects of slavery in the southern American states and on the effect of a loveless upbringing in a rich family as contrasted to a loving upbringing in a hostile slum. The novel consists of long chapters that focus on one of the main persons: Henry Forge, Allmon Shaughnessy and Henrietta Forge. In those chapters Morgan hinges on stream of consciousness. She does not literally take us along from second to second in our main characters minds, she does adopt their way of thinking, their passions in her way of writing. The Forges being intelligent mostly self-schooled intellectuals the first chapters go from philosophy to the bible, theories on race, the anatomy of horses, genetics and geology.
In the first chapters Morgan almost overwhelms her readers with loads and loads of information and torrents of words. Furthermore I found myself repulsed by the ideas of Forge and his southern, racist ancestors. Forge is a hard-liner as it comes to ideas on race and genetics, it makes you understand why racism is still so much alive. In chapter three Morgan jumps to Allmon who presents us with the opposite world of growing up in an aggressive slum, heading almost automatically towards crime and prison. Morgan adapts her writing and her choices of topics to the poor African-American neighbourhood with its lack of schooling, poverty and few chances of escape. Allmon appears to be doomed from the very beginning.
‘The horse’, the race horse as a matter of fact links the Forges and Shaugnessy. The own breeds them, the other takes care of those expensive creatures. The one thing Henry and Allmon have in common is their blinding ambition to earn loads of money in racing. Horse lovers will find the passages on methods of breeding and schooling race horses fairly unpleasant. For some kind of reason those horses are meant to show what they are worth when they are only two years old. When they are three they are supposed to make their owner cash in on the racing track and one year later those same owners can earn disgusting amounts of money producing foals. It hardly matters that a two year old does not have the body that matches the explosion of power it is meant to produce. With a bit of luck bones, muscles and tendons start to fail after the short period of racing. By then the big money has been earned.
Another link between Forge and Shaughnessy is Henrietta, daughter and lover. After having compensated her cold upbringing with a string of one-nights stand, she falls hopelessly in love with Allmon. Unfortunately those who appreciate a decent feel-good novel will also be disappointed. The love between Henrietta and Allmon does not stand a chance, it does not forge a union between their contrasting worlds. No ‘Say Yes to the Dress’-finale with a proud daddy, an emotional groom and a blushing bride for The Sport of Kings.
The Sport of Kings is not a simple novel. It combines a serious message with a tragic history of doomed relationships between people. The horrible ideas on in-breeding horses bear an uncanny resemblance to Forge’s ideas on race. Morgan furthermore consciously toys with her readers and the amount of information they can manage. Somewhere in the middle of the novel she all of a sudden addresses her readers: ‘can you still manage or am I too much?”. I am afraid she might have lost a number of readers by that time. Those that love a challenge will be rewarded with prose that reminded me of poets like Whitman and TS Eliot. They will also be taken along in the tragic lives of Henry, Henrietta and Allmon. No easy read this novel but definitely worth the effort. I hope it gets through to the short list.