My thanks to Parthian Books and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.
The Equestrienne is a short, novella length work by Slovak writer Uršula Kovalyk, and translated by Julia and Peter Sherwood. The novel was the winner of the Bibliotéka Prize in 2013, and part of Parthian’s Parthia Europa Carnivale writing in translation project.
The Equestrienne opens with our narrator, Karolina, who is elderly, waiting for the ‘succour that death will bring’, but death having disappointed her, she takes matters into her own hands, choosing a rather brutal way to end her life, a means the significance of which only begins to make sense much later. As this ruthless scene plays out, Karolina begins to reminisce—going back all the way to her birth, no, in fact, even before, when she was still part of her mother’s body. Karolina is born into an all-woman household; her grandmother who looks after her for much of her early life (and at one point also presents her a small dagger for protection when needed), and her mother who as soon as she is able is happy to return to work as well as a succession of boyfriends. Their only relations mentioned are three old aunts whom they visit from time to time. Karolina and her family are living in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, and communism has taken much of what they had—her grandmother’s tavern and the aunts’ few treasures among them. They have a home to live in and work of course, but what they have lost is for no fault of theirs. After her grandmother’s passing, there is only Karolina and her mother.
Karolina is always uncomfortable when her mother brings her various boyfriends home, but when one encounter gets too close for bearing, she runs, only to find a vast paddock with a fat grey horse, and a girl with him. The girl is Romana, and the horse Sesil, and soon the three become friends. Romana, who has one shorter leg, has an abusive father, and for both girls Sesil and the riding school that he is part of becomes a place of solace, away from the unbearable situations they face at home. While initially not allowed to ride as part of the school, Karolina and Romana’s skills are noticed one day by Matilda, one of the riders/trainers who begins to train them for a trick-riding/vaulting team. Soon, they begin to see success, finding something they’re really good at. Alongside, through a slightly older boy Arpi, whom Karolina befriends, she begins to discover music (Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones and Dead Can Dance among them), and cigarettes, and using this music for her training rather than the prescribed or expected classics becomes a sort of rebellion.
But then the Velvet Revolution unfolds; communism has come to an end, and capitalism is back—words like competitiveness and market begin to be common. But the fall of communism does not end up translating as they expect, for the chances Karolina’s mother had thought would transpire don’t. And Karolina finds the riding school that was her one place of comfort, the place where she excelled, is beginning to change as well, and she and Romana may no longer have a place in it.
This turned out to be a bit of a mixed reading experience for me. I liked getting an insight into the Czechoslovak Republic both in and out of communism. It is interesting how each ideology is seen by its respective proponents as being the answer to all the problems plaguing the world (or something along those lines), yet both aren’t really able to resolve anything, or even if they do, neither is without its problems. While communism here may have deprived Karolina’s family unfairly, they are able to keep a roof over their heads, and Karolina and Romana—in their own ways misfits in society—are able to find a space to live out their dreams, explore their talents. When capitalism returns, the expected opportunities or reparations never really come, and for Karolina, what little she had (in a system she was vocal against) starts to slip away.
Karolina I found was an interesting character; she is indeed a rebel and has a voice—in school under the communist regime, she doesn’t shy away from speaking out about what she thinks has been unfair (much to her teacher’s annoyance, fear even); once she discovers the music of Pink Floyd and others through Arpi, that becomes all she listens to, so much so that she uses it to train at the riding school. Karolina also has a bit of the otherworldly about her, discovering the ability to be able to see other’s ‘souls’—their true natures—which seem to take one or the other peculiar from—even if her own seemingly eludes her, at least for a time. But her feelings, the way she experiences things are to an extent very primal.
Besides Karolina, we also have an interesting ensemble of other characters, whether it is Grandma, who is quite free with her swearing, or the three aunts, each with their individual personalities; Karolina’s mother, who might like having her string of boyfriends, but does care for Karolina; Romana, who has her own set of problems because of which the riding school is a solace to her as well, but whose fate after the capitalist system comes in takes her on a rather unexpected path; Matilda at the riding school who recognises the girls’ talent and helps them hone their skills, but whom the changes in the riding school affect very differently as well; or the very strange Arpi with his love of music but also a rather bizarre fetish.
The writing in some ways was an assault on the senses—blood, gore, snot, smoke, fear, disgust, danger, exhilaration—whether it is things that one ‘sees’ or ‘smells’ or feels, all of it is very raw as it comes across through Karolina’s voice. There are some moments of almost peace (like when Karolina comes across the paddock for the first time), and beauty even, like some descriptions of their vaulting performances. But the rawness, the frequent sexualisation of things was a bit much for my liking.
This rather melancholy novel deals with various themes—from ideology (or rather how it really turns out in practice), to friendships and family relationships (many troubled or tested in their own ways); dreams and their realisation, but also dreams crushed; opportunities found and lost—leaving one much to reflect on. An interesting, though tragic coming of age tale, I think I’d have liked this much better had it been approached a little differently.