Desert Isle Keeper
The Horse Dancer
It was just her and her horse, unobserved, free; she felt this freedom like any other horse-borne traveler over thousands years, back to Xenophon and the age of the Greeks.
Sarah Lachapelle has an all-consuming, perfectionist connection with her horse. Boo. When one trains with a Selle Français horse at the level of admittance to Le Cadre Noir, the premier French riding school, excellence is a given and so is devoting every atom of one’s body and mind towards that excellence. This is the driving force behind The Horse Dancer.
Sarah is a fourteen-year-old girl living in one of the projects of London with her grandfather, Henri. He had been a rider at Le Cadre Noir in his youth, but love of his wife made him give up that life, to his everlasting regret. So he devotes his days to training Sarah and her horse, Boo, to ride in the manner of those famous écuyers.
Natasha Macauley is a solicitor-advocate – doing the work of a solicitor and a barrister – speaking up for the rights of children, whether they are teenagers seeking asylum, young hoodlums, or little children caught in the middle of acrimonious divorces. Her career, by its very nature and by her own ambitions, is all-consuming, leaving very little time for her husband, Max. Theirs had been a passionate marriage at the beginning, but his careless easy-going ways, the roaming life of a freelance photographer, and being a strong magnet for women, juxtaposed with her workaholism, her need for control in her life, and her depleted emotional state at the end of the day put their relationship under a lot of strain.
Before this story begins, they’ve been separated for a year, during which he’s been traveling while she remains in the house they bought together. However, Max has now decided that for a few weeks, he wants to enjoy the house he spent so many hours remodeling, so, to Natasha’s great dismay, he moves in. She can hardly throw him out even though it discommodes her greatly and, not surprisingly, angers her boyfriend.
One day, a social worker calls on her to tell her that she needs to find a place for a fourteen year old girl to stay for a few days. The girl’s only relative, her grandfather, is in the hospital with a stroke, and she has nowhere else to go. Natasha reluctantly, and against all her lawyerly experience, agrees to take Sarah in for a few days
As Sarah moves into their home, she and her problems seem to bind Natasha and Max together. Jealousy and acrimonious exchanges still rule the day, but they’re united in their desire to give Sarah a stable life, even if it’s only for a short period of time.
But this means introducing rules – rules that Sarah tries very hard to defy. She’s terrified that if she lets on she owns a horse, Boo will be taken from her. She sees the ease with which adults make sweeping decisions about her life and she wants to keep them away from Boo. With her grandfather in hospital, she is unable to pay for Boo’s stabling but the owner of the London stable where he is currently housed – a close friend of Henri’s – steps into the breach and offers to hold off asking for payment until her grandfather recovers.
Unfortunately for Sarah, the stable owner is getting on in years and decides, very reluctantly, to retire to the countryside with a few of his choice horses and sells the stable to someone he knows. But you can guess how this goes. The new owner is unscrupulous and harrasses Sarah to pay up. So she starts stealing. She steals from Natasha and skips school to go look after Boo in order to reduce the amount she needs to pay for his upkeep until one day, the new owner snidely suggests that Sarah can pay him back another way. In her bid to keep Boo a secret, she divulges none of this to Natasha and Max, but love of Boo and dreams of Le Cadre Noir bind her to the stable. She despairs of ever being free of this terrible burden.
This is a story of awesome responsibility and awful choices: Sarah and Boo, Sarah’s grandfather and Sarah, Natasha and Max, Natasha and Max and Sarah, the former stable owner and Sarah. She features in all their thoughts and actions, and even Boo does his absolute best to please her because he trusts her implicitly. Everyone is trying their hardest to please Sarah and take care of her, even chance-met people.
Rather like the characters in books by Ayn Rand, Sarah comes across as cold and unsentimental. She has no time for emotions, rules, duties, studies, or people other than her grandfather. Riding is all that is important; her every thought and action, her very being is focused on achieving perfection in performance with her horse. She is completely unsympathetic for most of the novel even as I admired her focus and dedication. Ms. Moyes has portrayed Sarah so realistically and with such finesse, making her seem wise, a thousand years old and modern at the same time.
I am particularly enamored of Ms. Moyes’ storytelling style. As I discovered in Paris for One and Other Stories, I become absorbed by her stories from the first paragraph. They’re visceral, descriptive, and tangible. Her prose is lean and direct, with no recourse to metaphors or flowery language, thus making it accessible and relatable. I could imagine how it felt to be in Sarah’s shoes, even though I didn’t like her. I grieved with Natasha as she wrestled with her feelings for Max, her boyfriend, and her job. Seeing Natasha through Max’s eyes gave me a different perspective on not only Natasha’s character but also Max’s. The Horse Dancer is a complex, engrossing novel, and if you’ve never read Ms. Moyes before, I urge you to pick it up.