The Dark Horse by Rumer Godden ~ 1981. This edition: Viking Press, 1982. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-670-25664-1. 203 pages.
My rating: 5.5/10.
Rumer Godden assembles a motley collection of stereotyped characters in this predictable little story, which was apparently based on a true incident of the 1930s Indian racing scene.
Other than the intriguing setting – English-style thoroughbred racing in India during the final days of the Raj – I found absolutely no surprises here. I would give this slight novel permanent shelf room only to round out a collection of the author’s works, and – yes – I’ll say it yet again – because even a poor Rumer Godden is worth keeping around for dipping into as a casual light read.
A race horse who has not fulfilled his earlier promise ends up in India with his has-been, sometimes-alcoholic, defrocked-jockey-cum-stable boy. A noble and understanding trainer discovers the reason why the horse won’t perform; after a few ups and downs the big race is run; no prizes are given for predicting the winner. Oh yes, there’s a convent of rather saintly nuns involved as well. (Rumer Godden does do nuns quite well – I’ll give her that.)
This comes out sounding a bit harsh and dismissive, but I’ll temper it. There’s some good stuff in here too, and Rumer Godden obviously drew on her own experiences in India because the setting and time is lovingly portrayed and convincing in its detail. The horses are nicely characterized; the author obviously spent some time paying close attention in the stables during her long and varied life.
Sadly, in this tale, the humans are all a bit too one-dimensional to be quite as believable as the horses. There is a lot of commentary on the social ostracization both of the wealthy “outsider” race-horse owner Leventine, and trainer John Quillan’s lovely Eurasian wife; the point that this is a bad thing is hammered home good and hard as Godden mounts this particular soapbox and lets herself go.
This is one of Rumer Godden’s decidedly minor works. A pleasant enough story, but not up to the standard of her best efforts, either in plot or character development. The whole thing felt a bit distracted, as if the author’s mind was only paying partial attention as she whipped this one off.
Which is how this reader felt as well as she whipped through the story hoping for more engagement than she could muster up. Rumer – I’ll give you a pass because you’ve done so well so many times in the past; I’ll allow a few bobbles in a lifetime of supporting yourself and your family by the written word; the pressure to produce something – anything! – to put food on the table must have been intense. The Dark Horse was written in the 45th year of the author’s long writing career, and is, I believe, the twenty-first adult novel Rumer Godden wrote, in a lifetime output of something like seventy adult, non-fiction and children’s books.
A plea from me – do not judge this author on this book! Like the “A” and “B” girls she references in the novel, her own work falls into decidedly separate categories, though the quality of the writing shines through even in the lowest of the “B”s.