Review: ‘The Mare’ by Mary Gaitskill

The Mare. Mary Gaitskill. Pantheon. 441 pages. $26.95.
The Mare. Mary Gaitskill. Pantheon. 441 pages. $26.95.

In the twilight of a year rich with books about race in America, Mary Gaitskill has just published a novel about the knee-smashing effects of minority poverty and the corrosive tonic of liberal guilt. The Mare is not a colossal epic of our era; its vision is precise; its protagonists — all female — are socially invisible. But here, without a drop of condescension, is fiction that pumps blood through the cold facts of inequality in our country.

The whole story germinates in soil fertilized by good intentions. For Velvet, an 11-year-old Dominican girl in Brooklyn, the Fresh Air Fund promises a chance to get away from the city, to swim, to ride a horse. A pamphlet promoting this bucolic summer adventure shows “a picture of a woman with big white legs sitting in a chair with a hat on and a plastic orange flower in her hand, looking like she was waiting for a somebody to have fun with.”

Velvet catches the saccharine scent hovering over this program, but in fact there is a white woman waiting for her in pastoral paradise: Her name is Ginger. She’s a reformed alcoholic, happily married but unhappily childless. A friend suggests that Ginger and her husband take a baby step toward adoption by hosting a Fresh Air kid from the inner city. She sees the same pamphlet Velvet sees:

“It was sentimental and flattering to white vanity and manipulative as hell,” Ginger says. “It was also irresistible.” So begins a relationship founded on impossibly divergent expectations.

This is a book determined to give us nowhere to hide in crevices of self-satisfied superiority or innocence, and much of that intensity stems from the novel’s structure. With few exceptions, the entire story is a relentless volley of short soliloquies between this quiet brown girl and this needy white woman in Upstate New York. Their voices rear up from the page and thunder down on our affections. There’s something almost too naked, too unmediated about their confessions, but this unvarnished candor is nonetheless magnetic, keeping us wrapped up in their wounded minds for several years.

Gaitskill, a finalist for a National Book Award for her previous novel, Veronica, once again demonstrates her extraordinary empathy. At the start of The Mare, we can hear Ginger’s endearing nervousness, her desperation to “gather up everything good” and give it to this frightened girl from the city.

In this stirring series of monologues, Gaitskill has created a tragedy without villains. Ginger is well-meaning, but her desperation to be the perfect surrogate mom sweats off these pages. Once Velvet moves in, Ginger vibrates with happiness so intense, so fragile, that it seems ready to shatter.

“The order of the house, which before I took for granted, now looked to me like something alive and full of goodness when I got up every morning,” she says. “It was like we were both living a dream we had known from television and advertisements and children’s books, a dream that neither of us had believed in yet had both longed for without knowing it. A dream in which love and happiness were the norm.”

Remarkably, Gaitskill’s treatment of Velvet is just as astute and sympathetic. Without a touch of artifice, she captures the raw poetry in the girl’s speech and her astonished insights into the world. “Why is it,” she wonders, “that white people can walk their path in a way that black people — and people of my color — cannot?”

Velvet must somehow negotiate the cruelties of school, the urges of her own heart and the clammy generosity of this white woman who has pledged her devotion so immoderately. Her beaten but irrepressible spirit is never less than wholly captivating.

Through this storm of female voices gallops that fierce mare, the object of Velvet’s affection, the subject of her dreams, the creature that could deliver her from turmoil — or kill her. Gaitskill’s ability to control all this energy, all this yearning, is just one of the many rewards of her brave novel.

Ron Charles reviewed this book for The Washington Post.