by Rosalind Belben
‘Smiling sweetly, Griselda Romney’s mother, Mrs Lupus, climbed into the back of the motor.
Mrs Lupus said to her chauffeur, Maurice, “Shake the children off at five miles an hour.” As they dropped from the running board, plop, plop, she watched. She gave a benign wave. Mrs Lupus reported to her elder daughter, Ida, at Quarr, that Griselda had gone mad and was proposing to take Nanny to Egypt.‘
Children plopping off the running board of the motor under the bemused glance of Mrs Lupus – thus begins Our Horses in Egypt. I don’t feel like I was particularly distracted when I started reading the book, but I didn’t register this micro scene until I came back and read the first chapter over again. Going back to read over again happened fairly frequently as my foray into the book continued. Belben’s style, particularly her dialog, is peculiar. I enjoyed it immensely from the get-go, but I still had the occasional trouble following it – “Wait…what?” moments. Having gone back to read over, I often found myself chuckling – it’s a rather funny book.
Why is Griselda Romney proposing to take Nanny to Egypt? Because little Amabel must have Nanny, and Griselda must have Amabel. Griselda cannot be expected to return to England in any hurry, because ‘ “She is going…” in a bursting tone “…to trace her horses.” ‘. Philomena the horse was requisitioned in 1914 and pressed into war service in Egypt and Palestine before being sold off locally. Griselda simply must rescue her. Griselda’s search for Philomena is coupled with an account of Philomena’s experiences during World War I, and the thing in its entirety makes for some amazingly compelling reading.
The dialog comes in fits and starts, and it was easy for me to hear The King’s English spoken through the nose (put Maggie Smith in Griselda’s shoes), which seemed only proper. In an interview Belben said her style wasn’t as unusual as people made out – ‘I’ve been listening to that sort of inconsequential, batty chatter for half my life. My last two aunts continued to talk like that together until quite recently – until they died.‘ So half the book is batty chatter, and the other half is from Philomena’s POV, but not in her own words thank goodness. Belben tags along on all Philomena’s adventures, and you get a sense of what the horse feels and experiences, but it is never too intrusive. It’s actually quite remarkable how real Philomena seems, and the degree to which Belben made her a full-blown character without reverting to the talking animal ploy.
The details are rather brutal. The military and war scenes are intense, full of both the ghastly and the strangely beautiful. The landscapes of Egypt and Palestine are vivid. In the bits with Griselda in Cairo and elsewhere, Belben quickly and deftly jots down minor characters and street scenes that explode from the page. There is lots and lots of terminology that goes a bit over the head if you’re not familiar with mounted calvary tactics and other military maneuvers, or if you’ve never ridden a horse in your life – but instead of being irked by this I was mildly fascinated.
Actually, on the whole I’m rather excited about this book. I enjoyed it thoroughly. Aside from the goodies that I’ve mentioned already, it delved into some serious stuff too. Griselda’s feeling of moral duty toward her horse is questioned by the people around her, who wonder how she can mention her dead soldier husband and her lost horse in the same sentence. She comes off as more devoted to the animals around her than the humans at times, especially in Cairo when she is brought to tears by the suffering of the working horses but barely sees the poverty of the people who are attempting to care for them. Still, I am impressed by her devotion and determination, and the fact that she stepped so far out of herself to do something for someone else. Can you really question the fact that it was an animal and not a person?
I am very much looking forward to reading more from Belben, and I heartily thank Emily for picking this book for The Wolves‘ February read (we’re all posting a week late, due to other reading commitments!) March’s pick: Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral, which we will discuss starting Friday, March 25th.