Shortlisted for Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017 and a finalist in this year’s Pullitzer Prize for Fiction The Sport of Kings is no story to easily gallop your way through (see what I did there?). This is a story to spend time on. Read it. Savour it. You will either love it or hate it. I cannot imagine anyone being ambivalent towards this book once you’ve made the investment in reading it. It is either one way or the other.
Before I picked up this book, I read a number of reviews. Starting with the papers to the blogs much has been written about this book’s supposed status as a Great American Novel. Why? Is it because it deals with more than one topic over more than one generation? That seems to be the only reason why this accolade has been banded around for this book.
Saying that – was it an enjoyable read? Yes. Would I read it again? Probably not.
Now, you’re all asking, what is this book about and why have I got such a strong view on it? Well, regular readers of my blog will know I hate giving the story away or spending the entire review regurgitating the plot line so I shall summarise some of the key areas which will either prompt you to pick it up or discard it.
Morgan introduces us to the Forge family during a time where slavery was at its peak. We see conflicting priorities within the family as to the fate of the land it owns – will it continue to grow crops or will it end up being a place to breed and rear horses? I think you can probably tell where that ended up! Henry Forge (who is a child when we first meet) is constantly asked whether men are ‘the measure of all things‘ which we see he questions througout the book. He marries and has a daughter – Henrietta. A girl that we can immediately see will not be confined to societal boundaries. Her mother, however, is deeply unfulfilled which ultimately sees Henry and Henrietta on their own.
There is “no guarantee that your child would be adequate compensation for the life you gave up to have it. More and more, life looked an awful lot like a hoax perpetrated on women and designed to further men’s lives at the expense of their own.”
Then somewhere near the middle of the book Morgan skilfully flips to another family. Allmon, the son of a black woman and a white man who is for all intents and purposes a drunk, sees his father abandon him, his grandfather die and his mother slowly dying of lupus.
“Most of the time, she felt she’d been invaded by an alien. She didn’t know how to get it out of her body since she hadn’t allowed it in the first place. It just arrived one day, like she was accidentally pregnant with her own dying. It was pain’s version of the virgin birth – you never did it with death, but somehow he screwed you anyway.”
With his mother no longer able to support the family financially Allmon ends up getting in the wrong crowd in the serach for money which leads him to being incarcerated.
The two families are then thrown together in the hope and goal of breeding the perfect racehorse. I will leave the plot there as there are some fantastic segments of this novel – particularly where Morgan shoe horns in flashbacks of Allmon’s ancestor’s plight of freedom from slavery. That chapter won’t leave me any time soon.
That being said, Morgan laid it on thick with the prose. There were some passages which really tested my resolve and patience and I became bored very quickly when the focus was on the horses. I felt this all distracted the reader from the wonderful stories Morgan had woven of these two families and their ancestors.
Morgan’s common thread of evolution of the equine, the families and societies views on racial integration and indeed equality of women was exquisitely executed. It is for this reason why I enjoyed this story. Make no mistake about it The Sport of Kings requires the sport of patience however, on reflection, it is worth the read.
Do I think it is the Bailey’s winner? No. The Power by Naomi Alderman is still my winner!
Recommended for: If you liked Infinite Jest you may like this one!
Favourite quote: ‘Time, that old murderer, was now the room’s only occupant.’