Review: The Mare by Mary Gaitskill

In the run-up to the winner of the 2017 Baileys Prize being announced on June 7th, Becky Lea reads her way through the longlist and offers her thoughts.

Baileys Prize The Mare

The Mare follows the relationships between Ginger, a failed artist and recovering alcoholic, her husband, Paul, a teacher at a local university, and a Hispanic girl from Brooklyn who comes to stay with them. Said girl is twelve-year old Velveteen Vargas, or Velvet for short, from Brooklyn. Ginger and Velvet develop a strong relationship immediately that lasts for years after Velvet’s initial visit. When Velvet visits a nearby stables, she discovers a talent for horsemanship and attaches herself to a violent and abused mare, Fugly Girl.

The structure of Mary Gaitskill’s novel makes it somewhat difficult to get into at first. Chapters are short and told from different perspectives. Once you become used to the way the book fires between the two characters, Gaitskill’s skill in handling their voices becomes apparent. Velvet’s chapters have the patter of a swift-thinking young mind, darting between subjects and emotions across paragraphs. Ginger’s, by contrast, feel more measured and studied, the sign of someone with a careful way of presenting themselves.

The Mare Baileys Prize

The first half of the book is strong as a result of these alternating chapters; we witness firsthand the intensity of their sudden connection. The problem with Gaitskill’s narrative though is that it all feels rather rote. As it develops, the claustrophobia that is present in the early parts of the novel all but disappears in favour of a traditional sporting narrative and Gaitskill’s perspective shifts lose their incisiveness. That quasi-maternal relationship between Ginger and Velvet is fascinatingly wrought, as is Velvet’s relationship with her own mother, but soon falls into the pitfall of a cliche and unsatisfying ending. 

The Mare is a subtle examination of the way in which social prejudices force people into the patterns of behaviour that stereotypes are fuelled by. Velvet and Ginger are compelling protagonists and The Mare is at its best when Gaitskill is at her most ambitious.