Monday, February 04, 2008

Our Horses in Egypt

I had to leave the library and hide out in my car this afternoon to keep from making a spectacle of myself. I'd told myself I was a lot tougher than I was back in my Black Beauty days, when I'd become distraught over the fate of poor Ginger every single time, but the closer I came to the end of Rosalind Belben's Our Horses in Egypt, the more fragile I became. By the last page I was sobbing aloud.

Thank goodness for parking lot privacy.

History: Horses were requisitioned from the English countryside as military mounts near the beginning of World War I. Many of these horses died on the ships or during battles or succumbed to illness, poor conditions, starvation, exhaustion. At the end of the war, 22,000 horses who had managed to survive the Palestine campaign were left behind in Egypt by the War Office.

This is a story of a war widow, Griselda Romney, who, learning that her brown hunter Philomena is one of those abandoned horses, determines to bring her home. Her family and her husband's mother think this is nonsense, but obtaining reversionary interest against her expected eventual inheritance gives Griselda enough money to override everyone's voiced opposition. Leaving her young son with her sister, Griselda, her six-year-old daughter Amabel, and Amabel's nurse Nanny embark on a rescue mission.

Belben intersperses Philomena's own story from the day she is led off to Remounts with those of Griselda, Amabel and Nanny (and occasionally, the disapproving chorus back at home). The reader experiences crowded ship conditions, grueling treks through the desert and military battles and their aftermaths from Philomena's perspective:

Her ears ached. She had her head down and her breath had stopped. Her ribs slowly swelled. She was trembling: her skin and flesh shook in great rivulets of fear. In front of her Corky was lying on his side, his head was nodding; as though he'd been dozing in a meadow. The chestnut was between them, and was dead. Philomena's rein vanished beneath the chestnut. She jerked her head up, but nothing gave. Eight other horses were down. A ninth was down but, dazed, with forelegs that were stumps. Philomena blinked.

Horrible, horrible stuff that Belben keeps a tight rein on so that it's bearable to read.

And Belben's dialogue is a joy. Her human characters converse with one another without bothering to explain themselves to the reader--it takes some work at first to follow the unspoken transitions of thought, but on a second read, it's all delightfully clear.

This one's highly recommended.


  1. Yous is another fabulous recommendation of this book I feel I just have to read now!

  2. Anonymous3:52 AM

    I loved this book too and it sounds like we had very similar reactions - especially at the end. The emotional restraint that Belben manages amazed me. Are you going straight on to Hound Music??

  3. Well, I did order it last night. . . How about you?

    Jeane, it's being published in the U.S. later in the spring, but with Book Depository, why wait? ;)

  4. Anonymous10:17 AM

    The London Library has Hound Music and I'm going to pick it up next time I'm in. So much for my well laid year long reading plans but Belben is too exciting a find not to follow up.

  5. Year-long reading plans are made to be broken. I'm disappointed that the libraries around here don't carry her--closest Belbens are in Chapel Hill.

  6. I'm so glad that I'm not the only one that cries like a baby at animal books. My most recent cry-book-time was when I read The Book Thief. You should check it out if you haven't already.

  7. We've got a copy of The Book Thief around here somewhere. I do intend to read it once it reappears. :)

  8. I wanted to let you know that I am glad to found your blog. I too love reading and have a book blog but no where near as good as yours. I will be back often.

  9. Hi Yolanda. Glad to meet you.

  10. This sounds good--but I'm not sure I can hack it. I have read in other books about the horses that were 'requisitioned'--how sad that so many died, though not at all surprising. I'll have to add this one to my list, but I probably won't be able to read it in public...


A bang, not a whimper

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