If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of Equine Obsession
by Susanna Forrest
I previously reviewed another book by Susanna Forrest, The Age of the Horse: An Equine Journey through Human History, and really quite liked that one so I added this, her first book, to my wishlist and received it for my birthday.
While The Age of the Horse was an externally-focused international history / travelogue, If Wishes Were Horses is much more internal. It’s an example of a very typical style of memoir: the author was a horse-mad kid who fell away from that world, and as an adult gets back, and goes on a journey of self-exploration while doing so. Some of these books are very good; some of them are not. I’m happy to say that this one is extremely good.
Many of the same hallmarks of Forrest’s writing are here: incredibly literary prose, a deep empathy for and observation of her equine characters, a finely honed sense of the ridiculous or the absurd. I would say that sometimes these things don’t work quite as well in this book; sometimes her observations about the horses in her life strike me as a bit too human-centric, and sometimes she’s trying so hard to be literary she pulls a metaphor truly out of the depths of, say German Romanticism that I’ve never heard of.
Ultimately, this was a faster read than the other book, not as dense, not quiet as absorbing. It still took me for a journey that I very much enjoyed, and was at its strongest when probing the popular culture origins of the horse girl. Forrest did a really good and effective survey of children’s literature featuring horses as well as instruction books, memoirs, and the origins of Pony Club to construct a narrative of a late 19th/early 20th century shift in horse culture that took place alongside the fading of the horse from industrial spaces. It worked well with her memoir sections, seeing as how she had grown up amidst this popular culture herself, reading and internalizing many of the books and narratives she describes.
Of note: it’s a very, very British book. That was fine by me, but that means sometimes the references take on the feel of an inside joke, especially the ways in which she travels and interacts with the British countryside. (My geography is not great for England, so I frequently got lost, which, whatever – it wasn’t crucial – but it did mean that sometimes her passages had a hypnotic quality and I just had to keep reading past the names of towns and rivers and shires without really following.)
Overall, highly recommended if you are interested in a good horse memoir with interesting and thoughtful detours.