Helen Brown reviews Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer (Ebury, £16.99)
Lara Prior-Palmer was a bit annoyed when she became the first woman to win the world’s longest, loneliest horse race in 2013. Aged just 19, she’d entered the 1,000km (621-mile), 10-day competition on a rebellious whim after a random series of idle, horsey online clicks brought up appealing pictures of “long-maned ponies streaming across green steppes, space poured wild and free”.
The images were a powerful lure to a bright, athletic girl who’d bucked her family’s expectations that she would go to university, and instead found herself in a series of menial, dead-end jobs. While her friends were jetting around the world on gap years, or focusing on their studies, Prior-Palmer’s rebellion had left her rudderless. The race, she thought, would fulfil both her rather conflicting urges for constant motion and for freedom from stifling social demands. So as she approached the finish line, Prior-Palmer was angry that her rebellious escapade was turning into “a miserably predictable story, equipped with a victorious underdog and everything.” Later she would be even more irked by those who filed her experience under the misogynistic heading of “girl on erotic power-animal traverses the exotic”.
It’s her lively rejection of such clichés that makes Prior-Palmer’s memoir such an addictive and likeable book. It’s not really about horse racing. It’s about female nonconformity and a desire to plug into the thrills and torments of existence.
She is an acute observer of her posh childhood, shuttling between London and the family home in Hampshire. Her parents are sketched as a businessman who thinks swearing unladylike and a woman who makes jewellery, mumbles softly and worries constantly. Prior-Palmer takes after her three brothers. “I scorned at girlie-girls with Barbies and bolted from pink, that colour of social catastrophe, sickly sweet and nothing like me. I sat best with blue, the colour of distance and coldness.” She says she tended to ignore the “sensitive mouse” side of herself that caused blushing and constant stomach aches.
Horses fulfilled both sides of her, though: powerful and finely tuned. The equine affinity ran in the family: Prior-Palmer’s aunt, Lucinda Green, won the Badminton Horse Trials a record six times. Prior-Palmer got her first pony aged 11.
“Riding,” she writes, “has offered a counter-existence to women since before the times of Lady Godiva or the amazons of Scythia, one in which we can be demanding and assertive. If horses can make us powerful, they can also make us feel powerless – it’s the persuasion required to access their power which I find compelling.”
Despite her horsiness, Prior-Palmer had never ridden anything approaching 1,000km before the race, and did almost no decent preparation. She is funny about her failure to access the latent power of the horses she rides across Mongolia, and her ability to select the right ones at the various stations along the way. Some chase the wind, but others are slow and stroppy. One simply lies down beneath her. Small and barrel-tummied, her mounts are descendants of the horses ridden by Genghis Khan and his army. Khan was said to have killed a brother at the age of 14, which our author takes as a sign that Mongolia welcomes ruthless teens.
The race forces Prior-Palmer to reckon with her competitive spirit. She wonders if her unease with obvious effort is down to her gender or nationality. Born in 1994, she’s still painfully conscious of the echoes of Empire in her “entitled” accent. But she plays up the stereotyped English eccentric and sniffs at the brash ambition of the Americans.
After the Mongol Derby, Prior-Palmer was diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma and underwent chemotherapy. It’s possible that this life-threatening experience allowed her to project back a wiser, more philosophical head on to the rising trot of her younger shoulders.
But I admired her honesty about her increasing antipathy for the young woman who was expected to win the race. At their first meeting, blonde Texan Devan Horn, 20, bragged that she intended to win the race in six days. She mocks Prior-Palmer’s ramshackle gear. Soon her obnoxious neon pink jacket on the wild horizon transforms her into a “devil” in Prior-Palmer’s eyes. She tells American reporters she hopes Horn falls down a marmot hole.
Horn’s example allows Prior-Palmer to shake off her “nice English girl” manners. In the event, though, it’s decency that helps Prior-Palmer win the race. Horn pushes her final horse too hard, and though she crosses the finish line first, its heart rate is judged too fast, and she incurs a penalty, which means Prior-Palmer takes the prize. Internally, the victory makes her scream with triumph. But watching Horn sink to the ground to sob “like a washing machine”, Prior-Palmer finds herself with mixed feelings, a tangle of pride and regret: “It was almost as if victory itself became the villain, and the less I enjoyed it the closer I came to annihilating it.”
It’s that intensely heightened social and emotional analysis that makes Rough Magic one of this year’s best memoirs. And a perfect prescription for anybody who thinks millennials are running low on raw grit and deep, drifting thought. Prior-Palmer displays both without being in denial of either her own age or the one in which she lives.
I loved her refusal to end her story tidily. She is not 30 yet, and still restless. “Maybe I move to avoid making – making words, making friends and love. I do spread my heart thinly as I go. Will I ever accept that the most mythic, meaningful life might lie in the ordinary: the kingdom of details and detail surprises?” Not for a while yet, Lara, is my bet.