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BARN BLIND by Jane Smiley Kirkus Star


by Jane Smiley

Pub Date: June 2nd, 1980
ISBN: 0786202777
Publisher: Harper & Row

In this unusual first novel Smiley, with flawless command of the shaky grandeurs and gritty drudgery which can absorb the equestrian fancy, matches the openended rigors of the discipline with one woman's tragically destructive obsession. Kate Karlsen, owner of 50 horses in the Illinois countryside, trainer hnd instructor, a "failed equestrienne" in the Big Time and a severe convert to Catholicism, manages her family of four children—college dropout Margaret, 17-year-old Peter, 15-year-old John, pre-teen Henry—by inflexible rules: a code of manners for stable management, horsemanship, household and school duties. "Kate felt certain. . . of the loveliness of those rules. . . the nearly sensual pleasure in following them, lashing oneself to them." And husband Axel, from whom Kate has withdrawn in a gesture of shriving asceticism, is still fascinated by this unapproachable, driven woman who loves her children but is blind to their needs and personalities. Through the days of hard, grinding labor (the entire complex is manned only by the children) what did they know of anything besides horses? And did anyone ever ask them if they liked horses? While the family prepares for the shows, the restless adolescents, long suppressed and bewildered by disorienting visions of simple freedoms, are shocked into abortive protest: John, resenting his mother's passionate championing of Peter, as her best training product and given her best mount, resorts to untypical cruelty and neglect of the horses; Margaret encourages a casual flirtation with an older horseman but dreams of ordinary dates; Henry plans to run away. And at the show on the Karlsen complex the family will ride together for the last time—handsome, straight-backed, "all six attesting to the wisdom of Kate's theories and methods." The lives, drawn taut, will snap. John is killed, leaving Axel, Margaret, and Henry, like discarded marionettes, slumped in grief. . . but weeks later Kate and Peter, enslaved forever by Kate's lifelong "tigerish" circling of unattainable perfection, are working on the training field in a "frightening happiness." A devastating probe of a woman sealed within that (to most of us) alien world of the track and paddock; special—but deep-driving.