The Equestrienne is an interesting, slightly odd, debut from Slovak author Ursula Kovalyk. It is published by Parthian in the UK, in an edition translated from the Slovak by Julia and Peter Sherwood.
More a novella than a novel, the book is a coming of age story, set against a backdrop of the fall of communism and the fracturing of the soviet block. It follows Karolina, living in a small town in eastern Czechoslovakia, as she negotiates her teenage years.
Karolina is a shy child, a socially awkward child. She has a difficult home life. Her father is absent, her mother is unhappy and trying to find happiness with alcohol and unsuitable men. At school Karolina is an outcast, certainly not popular, but not particularly clever either.
In order to escape her difficulties Karolina spends more and more time at the local riding school. She feels a connection to the horses. Whilst at the riding school she meets Romana, a kindred spirit similarly excluded from mainstream life, and Matilda, an older woman who determines to train the two younger girls in horse riding.
What Kovalyk does well in The Equestrienne is create a sympathetic, engaging central character in Karolina. She is sweet, confused and kind and the reader feels a genuine connection with her. The two other central characters are well sketched as well, and it’s obvious Kovalyk has a talent for writing well-rounded women without extraneous detail. This skill is aided with a solid, direct style, although at times you get the sense that the translation process may have done the writer a disservice, with phrases that seem a little clunky.
For readers who did not grow up in eastern Europe during the communist and post-communist era, The Equestrienne also seems to present a powerful view of what it must have been like to live during the liminal period between the two. Karolina’s inner struggles are translated externally in the odd dislocation of the time. The author emphasises the undoubted strangeness of the period with a nod, at places, towards magical realism, throwing in odd fantastical elements from time to time.
Where The Equestrienne perhaps falls down is in pacing and structure.
The book is very short, only 80 pages. Whilst this is not a problem in itself, there are many brilliant shorter works, with The Equestrienne the short length doesn’t seem necessary. It appears to have forced the writer to play with pace to fit in everything she wishes to say, resulting in a novel that feels as if it speeds up and slows down randomly, in a way that leaves the text feeling disjointed and the reader disorientated at times.
In terms of structure, Kovalyk has decided to go with a circular approach. The book commences with the climax then reverses on itself, going backwards in time to show you the run-up to these concluding events. For me, this structure didn’t quite work. The event that opens the book (but closes the story) is so dramatic that it needs some context to fully appreciate, which of course it does not have until afterwards. And because the opening is also so much louder and more violent than the rest of the book, the subsequent pages couldn’t help but feel slightly deflating at points, which I assume was not the intention.
Despite this, there is certainly enough in The Equestrienne to make it an enjoyable read. In many ways it reminded me of The Tiger’s Wife by American writer Téa Obreht. Like that novel, it should particularly appeal to those who have an interest in the period or the geography in which the story is set.
The Equestrienne was published by Parthian Books 1 July 2016.
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Review by Joseph Surtees
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