Monday 8 April 2013

Book Review - There Must be Horses by Diana Kimpton


Abandoned by her feckless parents, Sasha has been passed from foster home to foster home, never fitting in anywhere. She is not surprisingly a troubled girl who finds it hard to express her emotions or relate to people. The only thing which seems to bring her out of her shell is her love of horses. After being thrown out of yet another foster home she is packed off to stay with Jo and Beth Turner for a temporary stay until a more permanent home can be found. She is overjoyed to find that the pair live on a horse rescue farm. There she also meets Meteor, an abused horse who has lost his trust in humans, and she feels a close affinity with the horse and his situation. For the first time Sasha has found somewhere she really feels she could belong. But she fears that her continuing emotional problems will mean that both she and Meteor will have to leave the farm forever….


Until now, Diana Kimpton was best known in the world of equine fiction for her Pony Mad Princess series. These are nice enough light-hearted stories and better written than the average book of this type. However as they are aimed at very young readers, they do not contain enough real depth to keep the attention of older children or adult readers.

However There Must be Horses, her first pony book aimed at older children is a completely different proposition; a more serious and darker story entirely. This really is an excellent read, which will appeal to all ages, and it is so well written that it just flows off the page. I would say I could not put it down, except I was reading this as an e-book on my laptop. (Someone will have to come up soon with the equivalent phrase for digital books !)

Unlike the lightly humourous Pony Mad Princess series, this story was much more serious, tackling some fairly gritty issues. Our heroine Sasha has been abandoned by her drug addict/alcoholic mother and has been passed from pillar to post until she feels she belongs nowhere. Equally, the book’s equine hero Meteor has been so abused and mistreated that he has ended up hating humans. Too many modern pony stories do not ask their young readers to think at all. However this story really explores what life must be like for a girl in Sasha’s situation. Thankfully most young readers will have loving and stable home lives, but this book portrays a different world and gives the reader a chance to understand this world and feel compassion for those trapped in such a situation.

Despite dealing with such important and weighty topics, Diana Kimpton has expertly avoided turning the novel into some sort of dreary morality tract or sermon. The story really is gripping. Our heroine may not be doing anything as glam as competing at Badminton or Wembley, but we are just as swept up in her world. Will Sasha ever get the loving home she deserves? Will Meteor ever trust humans again? Will the pair be parted forever? Because the stakes are higher – it is their life rather than just a question of whether they will win a rosette or not – this makes the story all the more powerful. I just had to keep reading to find out what happened.

Another reason we are gripped by the story is the character of Sasha herself. Diana Kimpton has created a superb multi-layered and also sympathetic character in Sasha. It would be easy to make the girl, with her behavioural problems and emotional coldness, unlikeable or unsympathetic, but as soon as we hear Sasha’s voice (the first person narrative was chosen wisely) we immediately care about her and feel empathy for her situation. And especially, as horsy readers, when we find out she also loves ponies we are bound to be on her side! Despite her faults, when we see her growing closeness to Meteor we know she is a good and caring person at heart. As an older reader I could not help feeling a rather maternal sympathy for Sasha and I think younger readers will feel a close affinity on a more equal level. Seeing Sasha overcome her very real problems may help youngsters cope with their own. After all, feeling that you are isolated, that no-one understands you and that you don’t fit in are common emotions experienced by teenagers.

This close sympathy with the heroine creates a strong emotional response to the book. There are plenty of ups and downs as Sasha (and the reader) are really put through the emotional wringer. This is quite ironic, considering that Sasha is dubbed as ‘emotionally frozen’ in that we feel with her the full gamut of emotions from joy and hope to misery and despair.

But this is not just a book about human lives and problems, it is at heart a real old-fashioned pony story. For me, the best pony stories have always been those which celebrate the bond between human and horse, and which show how this relationship has the power to transform lives. Sasha and Meteor’s close bond is integral to the story and it is indeed the love Sasha feels for the horse which changes her own life. The themes of horse rescue, and that of redemption of a character by their involvement with horses are certainly not new, but here they have been given a new slant in the way the author has drawn close parallels between the situations of both Sasha and Meteor. Because the reader can see the similarities in the situations of girl and horse, it can make one think deeply about how animals are treated, and how their problems may be a result of circumstance and abuse, rather than just a labelling an animal a rogue or a problem horse (just as Sasha has been labeled a problem child). I feel that youngsters will have a much more empathetic view of horses, as well as people, after reading this book.

In the main this is a realistic and quite down-to-earth novel. There are however a few times when suspension of disbelief is required somewhat. Meteor’s at times rather Lassie-like behaviour and his sudden (dare I say it meteoric!) rehabiliation were slightly unrealistic and melodramatic. But as this is a children’s book such plot devices are not out of place, and in fact they were also quite useful in heightening the emotional tension of the story. On the whole I felt the book had very few even minor flaws.

For me, this has to be one of the best pony novels I have read this year. It has all the ingredients needed for a superb pony story: a great sympathetic character, a bond between girl and horse, emotional depth and an intelligent exploration of deeper issues. It also shows a compassion for both human and animal which can be sadly lacking in many modern children’s novels and inspires good values without being boring or preachy. I really hope that the author will continue writing for this age group as I think she is making a real contribution to the genre.

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