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19 January 2023

Kick the Latch is a spare and powerful account of a life with horses

Kathryn Scanlan’s novel, based on interviews with an American horse trainer, is a precise and unromantic portrait of the racetrack world.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Horses: who’d have them? Early starts, every single day; proximity to mud and all the bodily filth such large mammals produce; the regular risk of injury; the huge expense. All this is taken to extremes for race horses, whose health and fitness are paramount if they are to succeed on the track and give their owners a return on their investments.

There are appealing aspects to a life with horses, too: the kinship you might develop with a creature you tend day after day; the pleasure of admiring its strength and grace; the freedom of riding long distances.

In Kick the Latch, the American author Kathryn Scanlan’s third book, which was met with acclaim when first published in the US last year, there is no romanticism. Scanlan has a flair for concision: her previous book The Dominant Animal contained 40 very short stories. Here, in similarly brief, clean, compulsive vignettes, Scanlan tells the life story of Sonia, a horse trainer.

Sonia, as she narrates, was born in Dixon City, Iowa, in 1962. Her family lived in a poor part of town. The first significant creature in her life was a “big dog” her family acquired when she was six: “But the dog kept wrapping his leg around me and taking my pants off in the front yard. It wasn’t his fault – he wasn’t fixed and I was the right height.” Sonia’s mother sent the dog back. Then her uncle brought them a Shetland pony, a stallion, which the family tied to a concrete block in their front yard. That beast too caused havoc, and was returned.

Even so, Sonia knew she wanted to be a jockey. Her school teachers joked that she was getting too tall, that she should put books on her head so she wouldn’t grow any more. At weekends her parents would take her to a track to watch races. She started helping out at local stables in exchange for rides, and then took summer jobs where she learned how to care for the animals. She prepared a horse for a race, and watched it win. After that she knew her life was at the track.

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[See also: Fantastic beasts and how to save them]

Kick the Latch – a brilliantly imperative name for such a slim novel – is based on transcribed conversations Scanlan had with a real horse trainer. Sonia’s voice is distinct, her no-nonsense attitude a product of her lifestyle. Filtered through Scanlan, who writes as though with a scalpel, every mark precise and deep, it accrues an intellectual power too. 

Together, Scanlan and Sonia become a force of narrative. One chapter, “Racetrackers”, reads in full: “You’re around some really prominent people and some are just as common as old shoes.” Neither deals in hyperbole. When Sonia describes something as “phenomenal” – here it is the success rate of the group of horses she first takes to race – the word has such a rare heft you know it must be true.

Sonia’s social life centres around the racetrack and the raucous nights out the trainers have together. She doesn’t mention other friends. The string of men she becomes involved with – mentally and physically abusive jockeys, jockeys with eating disorders and alcohol addictions, jockeys who go on to die by suicide – are no advertisement for this lifestyle. In a particularly short chapter entitled “I seen him every day”, she describes how when she was a teenager a jockey snuck into her trailer and raped her at gunpoint. “I cut my hair real short after that,” she concludes.

Scanlan never overtly explains the appeal Sonia finds in horses, but she leaves crumbs. She has an evident fondness for the animals, and they for her. There are suggestions that Sonia did not become a jockey because of the difficulty of maintaining such a low body weight, and only on one occasion does a hint of bitterness creep in. “I did everything a jockey does except ride in a race,” she reflects. But there is no wallowing. Reading Kick the Latch it becomes clear that to speak in terms of aspirations lost would for Sonia seem delusional. She is always practical, measured. She has horses waiting for her.

Later, Sonia leaves horse training. She moves home and tries to become “a normal person”, whatever that is. For all its idiosyncrasies, her life at the racetrack is like any other – some days it feels hard, some days easy; some days it seems purposeful, some days meaningless. But as a character in a novel, Sonia is not normal: she has strong opinions about what she sees but rarely reveals what it makes her feel. It’s this unusual narrative conjunction that makes Kick the Latch truly refreshing.

Kick the Latch
by Kathryn Scanlan
Daunt Books, 165pp, £9.99

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