I AM THE WRONG REVIEWER for this book. I was never one for horse stories. Like many girls, I briefly tried to direct my longing for contact — both primal and proto-sexual — into the dream of fusion with something more beautiful, more powerful than me: a horse. Until I found that riding was less sensual than political; that for none but the most dedicated it was to do with what you could afford to ride, and how often, and how you could afford to look while you were doing it. So far, so much like many a teen courting ritual.

The Mare, like many of Gaitskill’s stories, is centered around an adolescent girl. Dominican-American Velveteen Vargas leaves her Brooklyn home for “Friendly Town” where a white couple — childless Ginger and her husband, Paul — offer her a stay in the country via the “Fresh Air Fund,” something of which Gaitskill, who engaged in a similar temporary foster program, has firsthand experience. Ginger pays for Velvet to have riding lessons, which quickly become an obsession, an outlet, a framework for the thoughts and feelings of Velvet, Ginger, and their families, and which also reveal society in miniature, or maybe not society, perhaps humanity itself.

In 2013, Gaitskill’s short story “The Mare,” was published in Vice. It was a snippet of Ginger’s point of view. Ginger starts where many of the characters in Gaitskill’s previous works leave off. She is middle aged, no longer struggling to make it as an artist in Manhattan. She is over the self-abuse: the drink, the drugs, the bad relationships that have been Gaitskill’s territory as a writer. “I’ve spent the last ten years nurturing myself and looking at my own shit,” says Ginger. “It’s time to nurture somebody else now.” She is trying to do that most dangerous of things: she is attempting to do good.

Like other works by Gaitskill, The Mare is told polyphonically. In her novel Two Girls, Fat and Thin, obese Dorothy’s first-person narrative is twinned with that of borderline anorexic, Justine, whose story is told in the third person. In The Mare, the voice of Ginger, a “failed” artist, able to continue practicing on her husband’s salary, is alternated with that of the girl in whose life she dares to “interfere.” Both speak directly to the reader. They are later joined (occasionally) by other voices from the narrative. Gaitskill does interesting things with who’s talking. It’s nearly halfway though the book when Velvet’s mother, Silvia Vargas, gets a voice, but it’s only toward the end that she gets a first name. It is important that there is no authorial point of view, no moral point of rest for Gaitskill’s reader.

Anyone who’s read Gaitskill before will find that the voices in The Mare are marked by comparative restraint. These are not the voices of people who rebel; they are voices created by their circumstances, the voices of girls and women who cannot tell. There is a reason these monologues are interior.

To whom are Gaitskill’s characters speaking? Both Ginger and Velvet start out apologetically, trying to give information: social, racial. Velvet is superbly articulate, especially regarding those moments where she is not: “I felt, but not a normal feeling that you can say what it is.” Velvet can draw together unusual images; hers is the voice of a child, a mystic, an artist, who sees things clearly because she is seeing them for the first time. Velvet initially calls the horse stalls “cages.” No one does a girl’s voice like Gaitskill: Velvet’s voice is both vicious and cute, changing from street to suburb, from the city to the country, where she respectfully calls adults “Miss Beverly” or “Miss Pat.”

Ginger finds that Velvet, though articulate, is dyslexic, “although she could sound the words out perfectly and sometimes even understand their meanings individually, she could not really understand written sentences put together.” This is no surprise. In The Mare, words are less than reliable. Affect has a complicated relationship with meaning, which depends on who says the words, and who hears them. Ginger says of Paul,

The third time we had sex, he said, ‘I want to make you pregnant.’ I must’ve had sex hundreds of times before, and men had said all kinds of things to me — but no one had ever said that. I never wanted anyone to say it; girlfriends would tell me a guy had said that and I would think, How obnoxious! But when Paul said it, I heard I love you.

When Ginger talks to her contemporaries — mothers a little older than her — “It felt like I was actually talking to women for the first time.” Still she feels their “friendly unfriendliness.” “Awww!” is their comment on her adoption project, and she wonders, “How do people make this simple sound into a mixture of real and false, the false mocking the real for the two seconds they rub together?” When the mothers talk of their own children, “There was soft feeling inside, but […] [it] was so shaped and perfect that I could not feel it.”

Two methods of communication run alongside words as their alternatives: touch and look. Ginger loves “the animal eloquence of [Paul’s] hairy hands,” but finds that Velvet has “lost her trust in touch. Not just my touch, all touch.” Both Ginger and Velvet’s mother bond with Velvet by styling her hair. Looks are less gentle. Ginger worries that “[i]f Paul was having an affair, how would [Becca, his ex-wife] look at me then? How would I look at her?” Paul is a watcher: he imagines things visually, “pictured” the presents waiting under the Christmas tree; he watches other people looking — seeing Ginger watching Velvet, he notices, “she looked like she did when she first loved me.”

The difficulties of speaking are at the heart of The Mare, particularly the difficulty of drawing together looks and feelings, of making words fit women’s experience, and women’s bodies: “So much of what happens between people is comparable to a game,” says Ginger. “There is a deep, soft core that everyone longs for, too deep for games, or even words. But to get to that you have to play, and play well.” In other words, as a boy tells Velvet, you are what you appear to be, what you can be named, and “[y]ou play your position or it play you.”

Naming is a powerful force in The Mare. “Funny Girl” (rechristened “Fugly Girl” by the bitchy stable girls) is an abused horse. Velvet identifies with her, wants to rescue her as Ginger wants to rescue Velvet, and rechristens her “Fiery Girl.” There’s some snarky fun with names in The Mare — a recognizable Gaitskill characteristic — think of “Dorothy Never,” and masochistic “Justine” (surely a nod to de Sade), who is brought up in “Painesville” in Two Girls, Fat and Thin. In The Mare, Ginger says, “your mom’s name is already written inside you.” Does she mean something deterministic, that there’s no possibility that Velvet (that Ginger) can ever change?

Words are more important for women than for men (if only because, for Gaitskill, women are just more important than men). Ginger, who says of her own mother, “her words built me,” says of Velvet: “It seemed she needed words, even dumb ones.” So words are to do with nurturing, and with motherhood … “Mare,” as Gaitskill points out, has the same sound as the word mère — “mother” in French. This seems a little artificial as French is not a language that comes into the story otherwise, but the concept of motherhood is central to the book.

“I am going down […] like every woman in particular,” says Ginger, as though women crumbled easier than men. She means menopause, the end of potential motherhood. Ginger is already infertile: she has not been able to become a mère, and feels alienated from her contemporaries, a group of “successful” women in their 50s: “they all have kids, and they all act like bitches to me […] I feel […] the nothing I’ve done with my life except to continue to live.” Gaitskill shows motherhood as so central to female experience that Velvet’s boyfriends call girls “lil’ mama,” and “mamita,” as though mother were the only thing a girl could be. “I may not be a normal woman. But I can pretend. I can try,” decides Ginger.

For Silvia Vargas too, biology has been an equal but opposite destiny. She was abandoned, first pregnant, then with young children, by two different men: “your belly’s out to here and you’re watching the door for somebody who never comes.” As Velvet becomes a woman, Silvia thinks she’s “like a stupid animal.” Women and horses are paralleled throughout The Mare, via the demands of the body: she kicks because of hormones “because — well, basically, she’s just being a girl,” says Pat of Fugly Girl.

“Ginger” and “Velvet” are the sort of names you might give to a pony. Ginger, on first meeting Velvet, describes her as though she might be an animal: “[h]er skin was a rich brown; her lips were full, her cheekbones strong. She had a broad, gentle forehead, a broad nose, and enormous heavy-lashed eyes with intense brows […] She was ours!” Mrs. Vargas says of her daughter, “some fool woman has made her into a pet.” Like Dorothy, Ginger has a terrible need to care. But neither people nor animals are easily petted.

The play between people and animals is expertly exploited, but never tips over into anthropomorphism. Velvet looks to her “mare” for the motherly qualities she finds only imperfectly in Ginger and her own mother: identification, physical closeness, reciprocal support. There is a constant uneasy twinning between people and animals, one becoming the metaphor for the other. After Velvet is involved in bullying a teacher, Paul comments, “You hurt him like that woman hurt that horse.” He means psychological pain. “[W]hy do they care if you hit them with a whip?” asks Velvet. “It’s all psychological,” answers Beverly, the horse trainer, “You control them from inside their heads. The physical is backup. Mostly.”

If horses are capable of feeling, they remain not people, their bodies amoral. “Horses are real […] They do what they do and if you can’t handle it, you shouldn’t be there.” While Velvet uses horse behavior to excuse her participation in bullying — like a herd, “We ran together,” — Ginger holds onto the distinction that “you are not a horse. You are a person.” Even the kindly trainer, Pat, tells Velvet, “Don’t worry, the strap doesn’t hurt her.” It is human love, displaced onto animals, that is cute, not the animals themselves. A horse is “one thousand pounds of unpredictable power.”

Gaitskill’s writing often fixates on bodies: their gravity and grace, but mostly their unwieldiness, especially if they’re packing an above-average number of pounds. Fat, for Gaitskill, is always grotesque, but also always fascinating, and can, as in Two Girls, conceal an unexpected amount of muscle. But neither Ginger nor Velvet nor Silvia are fat or thin. Outside the horse and rider relationship, The Mare is oddly incorporeal. Velvet feels her body only occasionally, when she makes contact, sometimes with a boy, but mostly with a horse.

For Gaitskill, the female body is a moral and ethical battleground. “[M]y body is good,” insists Velvet’s birth mother. “If I tell it to hold on, it does.” Meanwhile, Velvet’s teenage body is becoming uncontrollable. Mrs. Vargas describes it as “an alarm about to go off.” Ginger takes Velvet shopping for a dress. “It shows my body,” Velvet worries, though “it didn’t have lace and it wasn’t black.” “But not in a bad way,” the saleswoman replies, exposing different cultural standards as what counts as too sexy. “It looks like money,” says a girl to Velvet at a party.

“I will come after them with my body,” Mrs. Vargas threatens, when Velvet is attacked by classmates. Mrs. Vargas is strong from push-ups and her care job, and Velvet is strong from working in the stables, and the horses are strong and can also be felt rather than heard. Exercise in Gaitskill is usually at least partly a form of self-punishment — as for Dolores in Don’t Cry, and Dorothy in Two Girls. Why? “Everyone wants to have control,” as a gym instructor yells in the short story “College Town, 1980,” and, as in Two Girls, in The Mare psychological damage manifests as physical: Ginger’s disturbed sister “the adult Melinda was comic, nearly pumpkin-faced.” If you can’t control others, the typical Gaitskill paradigm is to play control out over your own flesh, through eating disorders or sexual masochism. The S&M of The Mare sits in the ethics of the horse/rider relationship.

S&M has been the model for relationships in much of Gaitskill’s work, from the story in her first collection, Bad Behavior, the basis for the movie Secretary, which Gaitskill dubbed the “Disney version,” prefiguring Beverly, the sadistic riding instructor who objects to the “Disneyfied horse-snot they sell in the multiplex. Love and self-esteem.” Beverly could be a character from an earlier Gaitskill work. She resembles Bryan, the sexually sadistic Hegel disciple in Two Girls, who explains to Justine how everyone’s either a master or a slave. Beverly uses a whip: “[Y]ou make a horse great by making it feel like shit.” But Gaitskill’s sadomasochism is never satisfying, certainly not for the female partner, who is usually the “bottom.” As for the male tops, she seldom enters their consciousness, so who knows? Bryan goes too far for Justine’s comfort, whereas the unnamed man in one of her finest stories, “A Romantic Weekend,” just can’t get it right:

“I’d just like to gag you.”
“But I want to talk to you.”
He sighed. “You’re not really a masochist, you know.”

“Human love,” says Ginger, “is the vilest thing,” and “the most powerful drug in the world […] It was not pleasure. It was like a brick wall that a giant hand smashed me against again and again.” It’s not only romantic, heterosexual connections that are sadomasochistic. Gaiskill’s polarized female relationships show friends, fat and thin, popular and unpopular, bully and victim. Why does an ex-fashion-model need to befriend the eponymous, dowdy Veronica? What draws damaged Justine to Dorothy Never who, on the surface, looks more hopeless than she is — self-medicating with candy and her devotion to an Ayn Rand–like cult? But Justine needs Dorothy, and Dorothy needs Justine, and this relationship finally offers hope. What do the relationships in The Mare offer? There are some similar pairings: Beverly is cruel because of Estella, just as Ginger is stunted because of her relationship with her dead sister, Melinda.

How do people end up like Silvia, like Ginger, like Melinda? Where does blame lie — is it always with the mother? “If it wasn’t the little girl that abused Fugly Girl,” asks Velvet, “who did? Was it the girl’s parents?” Good and evil appear at first to be zero sum in The Mare: as Velvet’s boyfriend Shawn says, “Ginger could be nice because people like her got other people to do the violence for them.” (Paul, less invested than Ginger in what becomes increasingly a quasi-adoption process, says of Velvet, “I was beginning to feel we were doing some strange violence to her.”) The Mare is a book about the nice and the good. These two words, “nice” and “nasty,” are key: cute descriptions Gaitskill’s characters use to fumble at high concepts of good and evil. Ginger is “nice like a little girl is nice,” says Mrs. Vargas, because she has never had to be nasty.

Ginger doesn’t feel “privileged,” although she is. She has plenty of problems, but she doesn’t know the price of a pint of milk. She likes to pretend, to play-act, as though, “believing made the good thing real for a second.” Paul offers an answering, more cynical, perspective: Ginger “believed in transformation, she did not accept that anything just ‘is what it is’; she always thought it could be something else, something secretly beautiful and glorious.”

“Everybody in New York City is afraid,” says Velvet. “You should not build to be what you are not.” Once Mrs. Vargas had the privilege of riding a horse. Once up there she could see “my life, going in different directions.” She is thrown off and has a vision of hell. “I was there, with the shit-people.” Hell is constantly in the thoughts of The Mare’s protagonists. “I don’t think God would have to send people there,” says Ginger, who, like Velvet, has a vision of visiting via “a door in our backyard.” “I think they would go there by themselves.”

“Why is it that white people can walk their path in a way that black people — and people of my color — cannot?” asks Velvet. Ginger says they don’t always, but when they don’t it is — and she uses the words of the title of Gaitskill’s earlier collection of stories — “Because they wanted to.” Desire, and its perversions, are the hinge of Gaitskill’s writing. Where does desire come from, and why do we want things when it is obvious they do us harm? The Mare has a fairy-tale premise of dangerous fantasy. Ginger desires a child with all the craving of Rapunzel’s pregnant mother, who steals the herbs that grow in the witch’s garden, and in return must risk what she loves best. Paul desires desire itself, the repetition of the pattern of relationships with younger and younger women, of whom Ginger has been one. Velvet is full of desire, but her desires have no object, until she meets her “mare.”

The Mare is partly a satire on the Cinderella stories in which characters get what they desire, and Gaitskill has a bitter sense of humor. Ginger shows Velvet a film about “a tough Hispanic girl” who learns how to box, but Velvet wants to watch The Princess Diaries. Ginger’s account here is different from Velvet’s, who only mentions the second movie; a hint that her lucid voice is more complicated than it seems.

Could The Mare be made into a movie, and if so, what would it lose? The subtle play of interior voices. Seen bald, its plot is not so different from National Velvet, which was originally a book, and Gaitskill is as suspicious of words written as of words spoken. “You say things like it’s in a book with quotes on it,” Velvet says to Ginger, who is trying ineptly to conceal her disappointment with Paul. Velvet’s brother Dante in turn accuses her: “You don’t care about your own family. You like those nonfiction ugly people better.”

So The Mare is a book about books. As well as National Velvet — and Black Beauty, which bores Velvet. The Mare also parallels classic children’s stories — A Little Princess, The Secret Garden — in which life is hard, but virtue wins out, and there’s a lesson to be learned. There are moments of folksy wisdom that I’m not quite sure what to do with: the horse “doesn’t care who you are, how much money you have, where you’re from. She accepts you.” There is little of Gaitskill’s usual gleeful disgust in The Mare, which has a more “mature” feel, as it deals both with grown-ups, and with children, who are altogether more grown up than college students, and wannabe artists. As a result, it is more prickly, even, than her most outrageous sexual tragicomedies. Gaitskill may have felt a little like Lily in “College Town, 1980,” who hates Reagan, but is “secretly relieved” when he wins the presidency, because it confirms her view of the world, of herself as its victim, and perhaps let her off the hook for what her “friend” Dolores called the “evil” of her own weakness. The most terrifying thing about The Mare is not that Gaitskill is bleak, but that she believes in love, even as she sees it as a complex mixture of selfishness and biology, that she acknowledges the impulse to do good, which is sometimes unintentionally terribly destructive.

Again, perhaps I am not the right reviewer for this book. I am white; I am English. I don’t have an intimate knowledge or personal experience of American politics or race and class. At her lowest point (and Velvet’s), Ginger finds herself wondering if non-whites are “[j]ust different,” and discovers, “I’m racist. At least now I know.” But it is Paul, not Velvet, who calls Ginger a “white benefactor” suffering from savior syndrome. It is likewise easy to ask whether Gaitskill is the “right” author for this book, for how easy is it for a white artist to address the difficult questions of her whiteness, her privilege? But The Mare is not only about this issue, it is also a challenge to it. It questions the frozen state of things, which Justine in Two Girls, noticing her white mother’s careful relationship with her black maid, calls the “bloodless world of decency and politeness.” Gaitskill’s book asks the same question as Ginger: “What’s wrong with satisfying a mutual need?”

Nevertheless, it’s hard to watch Gaitskill being nice. In a New York Magazine interview just after she had written her novel Veronica (2005), she said, “I too would like to look at a world where everyone is nice all the time. But it just isn’t recognizable.” But Gaitskill not being “Gaitskill” is not such a surprise as it seems: “It’s not good to let other people define your work for you,” she said in an interview in The Believer. “They’re going to do it anyway, but you should at least step up to the plate when you’re asked.”

I’m still not sure what I think about The Mare, and this may be Gaitskill’s intention. Chekhov’s gun never goes off, not effectively, anyway. What it is most like is life. There are many loose ends: Ginger’s thoughts about Melinda are never resolved, and what happens to the cruel trainer, Beverly? No one goes down into hell or, if they do, it’s not forever; things are achieved, even as other things are lost. Why did I love Gaitskill before The Mare? Because she told me, with brutal hilarity, why the world was a violent place; because she stripped it down, giving humanity to the acts of abusers, bullies, and mean girls. But here is Gaitskill in The Mare, like Ginger, telling me, relentlessly, painfully, that “any good thing might happen, anything.”

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A shorter version of this review appeared in the New Statesman.

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Joanna Walsh is a writer, literary journalist, and activist. Her latest books are Seed, and Worlds from the Word’s End.