In what is unfortunately one of the few available reviews of Rosalind Belben's impressive novel, Our Horses in Egypt, Stevie Davies calls it "a radical experiment in narrative." I think this is probably an overstatement, but there is certainly more going on in this novel, both structurally and stylistically, than might at first seem apparent.
Its twinning of narrative strands, one chronicling the the experiences of a literal "war horse" conscripted into cavalry service during World War, the other narrating its owner's attempt to track it down in Egypt several years after the war, is not particularly innovative, although it is brought off effectively. And while in effect assigning the role of protagonist to a horse does allow Belben to avoid several worn-out devices still being trotted out (so to speak) in so many contemporary novels, the notion of a story centered on a non-human "character" is also by no means especially "radical." However, Belben's novel does present itself in ways most readers are likely to find distinctive, even if they are otherwise primarily engaged by the emotion-laden story Belben wants to tell.
Most noticeable is Belben's prose style, especially the pervasive, staccato-like dialogue featured in the sections of the novel dedicated to the quest by Griselda Romney, whose own husband was killed in the war, to find Philomena, the horse requisitioned at the beginning of the war who apparently survived it. Here's a representative sample:
"In the old days, we managed."
"These fellows you found. . ."
"They said they knew what they were about."
"You're so gullible."
"I shan't be again. I had to chloroform myself when Georgie was born."
"It didn't put you down."
"How could it, a whiff or two! I was glad of it."
"Oh, oh, don't!"
It isn't that this conversation is disconnected or incoherent that makes it seem so elliptical. It undoubtedly makes perfect sense to the speakers, and careful reading can certainly establish the context in which these remarks are being offered, even if such context does become clearer and the subject of conversation somewhat more comprehensible in a retrospective reading of this passage. (In this way, Our Horses in Egypt encourages a more attentive and recursive kind of reading, which, in my view, need not be a burden and can ultimately enhance the reading experience.) The cumulative effect of this dialogue is a sense of thoroughgoing fidelity to the speech patterns of these characters as rooted in country, region, class, and time period. It is an actual example of "realism" unencumbered and applied with great rigor, and it is likely to unmoor the assumptions of those readers tied to a more conventionalized, less ascetic understanding of the role of "realistic" dialogue.
The second striking feature of Belben's novel is perhaps best illustrated in the section narrating Philomena's experiences in the Great War. While there is a narration of these events, it also comes shorn of rhetorical embellishment and narrative elaboration:
The Turkish machine-gunners played very freely across the Dorsets' front. Major Sandley wilted in the saddle. The dust raised was shot through with rosy rays of sun. Burgess sailed through the air, and was himself winged like a flapper. Riderless horses heaved themselves up, and thudded on with the rest. Philomena was so distracted (she had a curious view) she didn't hear the whump when, at four hundred yards, the files closed for impact and Corky was hit in the neck. She didn't pay any attention to his snort. But she saw the white of his eye. He was stubborn.
All of the narrative/expository passages in the novel proceed in this way, almost as if story were being built by accretion, storytelling replaced by listing: then this happened, then this, then this. Perhaps because Our Horses in Egypt is a historical novel, such a technique seems only the more appropriate, more faithful to the historical "record" (even when incidents and interactions have been imagined) as simply what happened, the essence of the historical past without the unnecessary intrusion of the storytelling gestures so many historical novelists seem to need.
Belben's listing strategy extends even to her sometimes idiosyncratic punctuation:
Nine yeomanry regiments had been withdrawn from Palestine. "The Bull" had lost, also, two infantry divisions; five and a half seige batteries; nine more British battalions and five machine-gun companies. He had been deprived of 60,00 battle-hardend troops. Infantry divisions arrived from Mesopotamia and India; and their transport drivers had to be trained. . . .
The semi-colons here seem to function not as a marker of sentence boundaries but as just one more way to extend the list of details associated with the withdrawal. Our Horses in Egypt, no matter how accurate its rendition of the British victory in Palestine, is finally still a rendition, its narrative method as much artifice as any other, but its triumph is perhaps in the way it skillfully employs its artifice while simultaneously appearing to conceal it. History seems to lie before us, however much it has been conjured up by a particular kind of verbal manipulation.
So skillful is this manipulation that, despite the deliberate poverty of means in the novel's construction, Our Horses in Egypt still tells an affecting story, both in the half concerning Griselda's finally hopeless effort to bring Philomena back alive and in that focusing on the Palestine campaign. And what could have been a smarmy resolution in which Griselda finally does find Philomena and spirits her back to England to live out her days in tranquility becomes instead a bitterly appropriate portrayal of a Philomena brought to ruin through overwork, beyond rescue and suitable only to be euthanized in a token act of pity. This is a novel that risks sentimentality at every stage in its development but that avoids it through unfaltering artistry.
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