Competitive rider, aspiring physicist, brilliant and pertinacious teenager: Helen Stockton Defoe takes her place among literature's unforgettable deadpan narrators like Meursault and Oskar Matzerath.
In this first novel by Battersby (Ordinary Dogs: A Story of Two Lives, 2011, etc.), the literary correspondent for the Irish Times, Helen lives a charmed if lonely life of elite Southern privilege on her family's Richmond estate. Living amid her veterinarian father's thoroughbred-filled stables, she is kindly treated by her classmates but mostly friendless, wanting for nothing but emotionally disconnected from her arrogant, brooding father and frivolous, detached mother. When her mother is publicly shot by her crazed lover, Helen joins her father, who, like her, values animal companionship over human, in shrugging with bewilderment—and a touch of indifference—at her mother's violent and ignoble death. Helen is largely content to tend to her passions, science, art, and horses, until her father's beloved racehorse dies, leaving him awash in the bitterness and grief that failed to appear after his wife's murder; he denounces serious and disciplined Helen as a mere dilettante, bound not for a life of invention and discovery as the scientist she has always dreamed of becoming but that of a historian, an eternal observer. In disgust, she flees to Paris but, after a perilous incident with a loathsome stranger, regrets having chosen a city she'd never much cared about over Berlin, a place better suited to her character. Helen is saved from mounting self-loathing, despair, and aimlessness by an elderly lost dog who "wail[s] like a Confederate widow" and gives her a renewed sense of purpose. Her mission, to stay in Europe long enough to find a way to bring Hector back home to Richmond to die, leads her to a training yard in Amboise and to true passion, love, and sorrow.
A perceptive, keenly intelligent bildungsroman, well marbled with dark humor, about inhabiting one's own life, body, and emotions despite upbringing and uncertainty.