BOOK REVIEW / Female ambition in a manes world: 'Barn Blind' - Jane Smiley: Flamingo, 5.99

Click to follow
THE title is hardly exciting, and the cover is conventional. But this unpromising-looking book was the first novel of an author who subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and within a few pages its quiet story has become entirely gripping.

The Karlsons live on an Illinois farm with 40 horses (too many, as several characters remark). Kate Karlson breeds, trains and shows the horses, the children ride them, and Axel's considerable salary is absorbed in keeping the place out of bankruptcy. Kate, herself once a rider of national reputation, pushes the children remorselessly to higher achievement, so showing how much she cares for them.

But the children have never been asked if they want to ride horses; they are, in a serious sense, neglected. What emerges, shockingly, in this portrait of an apparently enviable family is something quite monstrous: obsessive ambition taking the place of maternal love. The book's deeper concern is with the consequences of everyone's inability to grasp this truth.

Each of the family members is strongly characterised. Peter, on whose unfolding talent Kate pins her hopes, lacks ambition but is involved in an exhausting mental struggle with his horse. Fifteen-year-old John finds that he hates horses - and his mother - and plunges without a compass into the mystery of his own character. The youngest child, Henry, dreams of escaping on his bicycle and getting proper dinners at last. Axel, whose wary devotion to his wife is one of the pleasures of the book, is helpless to avert the coming tragedy: 'Most of the time (he) felt as though his eyes were windows and he himself a little boy jumping up to see out of them.'

This is a well-made book, so alive in its detail that you can practically smell the tack and straw and hear the animals shifting in their stalls. There is something old-fashioned about it (and must have been even on its first publication in 1980), and although it is not necessarily the worse for that, the logic of its ending obviates any sense of surprise. We know what Kate deserves, and she gets it.

Jane Smiley turns this predictability to advantage by producing a denouement which is breathtakingly underwritten - a risky procedure, but it works. Her unobtrusive prose is very good at evoking the bleakness of the heart, but it can also illuminate moments almost beyond articulacy. Here is Peter as he achieves communion with his horse: 'Everything about the horse and himself seemed to drop and lengthen, as if falling into a groove. The horse did not so much capitulate to him as gather him up - take hold of his hands, fill the space between his knees, center himself under Peter's own center.'

This is partly a book about the difference between crude ambition and real love for what one does.