For Love of a Horse Book

I am not a horsey person. I have never had a horse, nor a pony – unless My Little Pony counts (my first was Blossom). When I was in hospital with appendicitis aged 9 my grandparents brought me two books by Patricia Leitch, someone I had never heard of, and this sparked my love of the Jinny books. Night of the Red Horse is the most supernatural of the stories which got my attention straight away. Once I finished the books I then wrote my own version, which were pretty hopeless as I knew nothing about horses. My heroine was called Jenny – fortunately I got more original as I got older.

I stumbled over this very book a few months ago as I was clearing out my old bedroom, and decided to collect the whole series again. As is my wont, I became obsessed by getting all the books in the same cover I had in my childhood. This wasn’t easy – of course !- the late 1980 Armada edition was rare. I scoured eBay, Abebooks and charity shops (a mistake, as I never found a Jinny book but I did find another book I wanted to buy – always!). Some sellers online told me rather snittily that they didn’t have time nor resources to find out which edition they had for sale and I would just be allocated one when I paid. As any serious book collector knows, the edition of the book is vital and I’m not sure someone who doesn’t understand books should be selling them!

My patience paid off, although it did include having a book sent over from South Africa (fortunately a friend in SA is coming over to the UK soon and was able to act as a carrier pigeon). I now have all 12 of my Jinny books again – including 2 individual copies of the double-book compendium I was originally given.

jinny.png

Jinny is an 11 year old whose family move to the Scottish highlands from a grey city. On their way to Scotland the family see a circus and Jinny is entranced by an Arabian horse named Yasmin. When Yasmin escapes across the moors, Jinny makes it her mission to find her and keep her safe – never to tame her, as her wildness is what Jinny loves most about her.

Jinny’s passion for Yasmin – whom she renames Shantih – and her determination to win her over – is the main theme running through the series but even if you really don’t like horses you will still find these books engrossing. There are 12 of these books – written for children, ostensibly, but in my view they are much deeper and darker than mere pony stories. They deal with relationships, family, bravery, tolerance, and the various traumas of growing up. In my view Patricia Leitch was right to finish the series at book 12, rather than drag it out indefinitely like the Sweet Valley books (another series I avidly collected). Jinny’s burgeoning self-knowledge would have torn her away from her symbiotic relationship with Shantih and the magic of the Celts. Another joy of the books now is reading Jinny’s innocence through my adult eyes; her frustrations, fears and failures are all too easy to remember as my own.

These books are now republished by Catnip, if you want sparkling new copies – but I found mine on Amazon, eBay, Abebooks and through these sites:

www.childrensbookshop.com

www.clhawley.co.uk

There’s a real joy in stumbling upon and making a connection with independent booksellers. When I next go on one of my little jaunts, I think it will be to Hay-on-Wye: the kingdom of books.

I also stumbled upon The Grapes of Wrath. How have I misssed Steinbeck until now? (Of Mice and Men is a much shorter piece) What an incredible book. I lived it. I could smell the heat of that dreadful summer, feel the pangs of hunger the Boads learned to live with. The ending for me was not redemption so much as utter despair – but did I read it wrongly? Was there some hope for the future in Rosasharn’s action of mercy?

I also read the new Lisa Jewell – Then She Was Gone. BAH! I love Lisa’s warm, perfectly observed, extraordinary story of ordinary people and ordinary lives. I don’t want a psychological thriller from my ‘big sister’ author. The book is as perfectly written as always – Jewell gets emotion, sensation and dialogue spot on in her own inimitable style – but the plot is melodramatic and even I couldn’t suspend my disbelief for the length of it.

Birdcage Walk, Helen Dunmore’s last, did not hold me. It’s beautifully written as always enough but dragged – there’s only so long one can care about a builder slowly going bankrupt against the background of the French Revolution. I feel bad about being disappointed by this, and have ordered The Lie, which in my mind should be her last book and is a much more fitting epitaph.

And – because I have never read it – I tracked down Rosemary’s Baby from my library. Fabulous stuff, with much more depth than you would expect; and above all, a real chill which went from the top of my spine right down to the very tips of my toes. I love that chill as much now as I loved it nearly 30 years ago, prostrate in my hospital bed, reading about the Red Horse haunting Jinny Manders.

Mourning Helen

PD*5651360

I was deeply saddened to read of the death of Helen Dunmore earlier this week. The loss of one of my favourite wriiters haunts me: I can’t quite believe that there will never be another book from her.

I came across Helen Dunmore when I read Burning Bright aged about 16-17. The assured delicacy of the prose, when compared to its subject matter, jolted and intrigued me. Dunmore’s words were like a cool, clear glass of water on a hot day. Her stories of love, desire, danger, revenge and things done wrong pull you in as relentlessly as the tide in Zennor, the setting of her first book.

When I read of Dunmore’s illness a couple of months ago there was no confirmation that it was terminal. I put a reminder in my diary to send her a letter, wishing her strength and telling her how her writing had affected me. I sent this letter finally about three weeks ago and I really hope she got it, and knew what an impact she has had on me and on so many other readers.

If you haven’t read Helen Dunmore, Zennor in Darkness. Mourning Ruby is startling in its raw and paradoxically beautiful depiction of grief. The Lie, published during the centenary of World War 1, is gut-punchingly powerful. Burning Bright is sheer poetry. Your Blue Eyed Boy and Talking to the Dead are darker tales of people not always being quite as we’d like them to be.

She wrote this poem before her death. If you haven’t read Helen Dunmore, this must tempt you into doing so.

Hold out your arms

Death, hold out your arms for me
Embrace me
Give me your motherly caress,
Through all this suffering
You have not forgotten me.

You are the bearded iris that bakes its rhizomes
Beside the wall,
Your scent flushes with loveliness,
Sherbet, pure iris
Lovely and intricate.

I am the child who stands by the wall
Not much taller than the iris.
The sun covers me
The day waits for me
In my funny dress.

Death, you heap into my arms
A basket of unripe damsons
Red crisscross straps that button behind me.
I don’t know about school,
My knowledge is for papery bud covers
Tall stems and brown
Bees touching here and there, delicately
Before a swerve to the sun.

Death stoops over me
Her long skirts slide,
She knows I am shy.
Even the puffed sleeves on my white blouse
Embarrass me,
She will pick me up and hold me
So no one can see me,
I will scrub my hair into hers.

There, the iris increases
Note by note
As the wall gives back heat.
Death, there’s no need to ask:
A mother will always lift a child
As a rhizome
Must lift up a flower
So you settle me
My arms twining,
Thighs gripping your hips
Where the swell of you is.

As you push back my hair
– Which could do with a comb
But never mind –
You murmur
‘We’re nearly there.’

 

I am still on the library waiting list for Birdcage Walk, her final book. When I get paid I’m going to stop waiting, and buy it. Right now I am going to start rereading the books I do have in all their elegant, searing, fine-boned beauty, and cry a little more.