By: Byrna Barclay
Coteau Books, September 2010, 408 pp, Paperback $21.00 CDN
Reviewed by: James Onusko
Regina’s Byrna Barclay, author and activist, has tackled themes that require the skills of an experienced author; love, death, betrayal, and family, figure prominently in The Forest Horses. This is her ninth book and her maturity as a writer cannot be questioned. She has done some excellent research on several topics including: Gotland horses, foreign languages, and the siege of Leningrad. The author’s passion and admiration for Russia, both contemporary and historical, is obvious. Often lost in the critiques of present-day Russia is the undeniably rich literary and visual art histories of its nations’ artists. None of this is lost on the author with Kostya, a twenty-first century Russian intellectual, portrayed both romantically and admiringly throughout the novel. Barclay’s authorial voice is clear and strong through much of the novel, and if historical fiction is a genre that interests you, then The Forest Horses will likely not disappoint.
The novel focuses on travel and journeys – both real and metaphorical for its characters. Just as the Second World War has begun, the Swedish farm girl, Lena, and her precious ponies are kidnapped by the Russian horse thief, Pytor. Pytor is cast sympathetically and great emphasis is put on the fact that he had not intended to kidnap the young woman, but that she happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Lena is taken from Gotland to Russia in a cargo ship along with the horses across the Baltic Sea. The other major journey in the novel is taken by Signe, Lena and Pytor’s daughter, who journeys from Saskatchewan to Russia to explore her dual roots, and to ease some of her constant pain resulting from profound familial loss in her life. Parallel stories are told mainly in the 1940s from Pytor’s point of view as well as his sister’s Maryushka. Pytor and Maryushka’s life stories are arresting and also explore their earlier, brutal childhood in Stalinist Russia before experiencing the horrors of wartime Leningrad. The Gotland horses become an essential part of the narrative as they provide an essential role in bringing supplies and hope to besieged Russians across the frozen winter landscape.
Lena and Pytor’s relationship is the major strength of the book. Lena’s vitality and Pytor’s unending charm forge a compelling relationship. While Lena is obviously naïve, she is not stupid, and Barclay does a masterful job of convincing the reader that Pytor’s redeeming qualities could win Lena’s heart despite their troubling beginnings. Lena’s love for her horses is also well expressed, and her nearly supernatural abilities with her herd form a key element to her identity. Without question, there is a significant fairy-tale strand running through the book and Barclay’s ability to capture the nuances and subtleties of landscape is exemplary. Barclay paints with her words and there is a particular richness to the earliest days of Pytor and Lena’s marriage. Barclay’s at her best in these chapters and there is a great deal of ease to her writing in this part of the novel. A close second to this section of the book is the portrayal of wartime Leningrad and its citizenry. Barclay’s brilliant imagery will haunt all readers.
In this excerpt, Lena explores the home that she and Pytor will share as newlyweds:
Birchbark baskets full of asparagus, beets, cabbages, mushrooms of every size and colour, that she could pickle if she had jars. Wild strawberries and raspberries and black currants for jam. From the rafters hang hams and sturgeon, curing. Bushels of salted apples and pears. Finding an empty birchbark basket, she begins to gather food for her wedding supper.
Eggs stored in watery ashes, and she dips a finger into the mush, tastes it: lime and olive oil. But the most astonishing thing of all is a skin bag that she guesses is a calf’s stomach containing cheese. She didn’t see any cows. Or a garden. Maybe this island isn’t as deserted as she first thought, maybe there’s a collective farm or village on the far side, hidden by aspen woods…
She finds Pytor unloading the pushcart: furs to cover their bed on the stove, copper pots and pans, the bricks from the potbellied burzhuika to make shelves, his bag of books, an icon of the Madonna and Child, two dufflebags stuffed with their market clothes, his and hers. A battered violin case wrapped in a mothy rabbit skin and tied with a red belt.
When he sees her carrying the basket of fresh fruit and vegetables, he allows a smile brimming over like cream leaking from a butter churn. “We stay here? You like it here?”
“Yes, I like very much.” It will do just fine until the war is over and she can take her husband home to Gotland. She wants her mother with her when the child is born. Surely, an armistice will be declared soon. It’s almost winter.
But now, she must feed them all, this new family.
As written earlier, the novel has two distinct overarching narratives, with smaller, sub-narratives within the larger ones. Unfortunately, this dichotomy seems to inhibit Barclay’s writing style(s); at several turns, the writing style in the chapters on twenty-first century Russia seems fractured. Signe’s modern tale is considerably weaker than the ones focusing on Lena, Pytor and Maryushka. Barclay does not capture more than a smidgen of the emotion and passion that characterizes the historical parts of the book. Signe’s trip to Russia, holding such promise from the outset, never moves beyond anything more than a middling travelogue. Part of it may be that such a small portion of the book deals with the contemporary that as a reader, I never really identified with the older Signe or the mysterious Russian guide, Kostya. I would also argue that Barclay could have spent even more time developing Lena’s character. Lena really steals the novel from my reading and I would have enjoyed much more from Barclay regarding Lena’s earliest years in Sweden. Crafting the novel as purely historical might have allowed her to explore more of the past without trying to wedge Signe’s modern story into the novel.
Despite these drawbacks, I would recommend The Forest Horses to most readers. I think that older readers will enjoy the book the most. Teenaged readers, unless very well-read and students of Russian history, will not be compelled to finish the book in most cases. While The Forest Horses never reaches a full gallop, the ride is still worth the time and effort.