Occasionally I do remember to stray outside the bounds of SFFH genre reading. My latest such foray was Call It Horses by Jessie van Eerden, courtesy of Dzanc Books who were kind enough to provide me with an advance copy of the book due to be released in March 2021. I’ve read several books published by Dzanc now, and I’m regularly impressed with the works they publish, books that are unafraid to experiment with voice and style, primarily literary, but also straying into genre territory with titles such as The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Darger and Nino Cipri’s collection Homesick.
Like Homesick, Call It Horses is the winner of the Dzanc Prize for Fiction. Set in 1990, the story follows the journey of three women – Frankie, Mave, and Nan – as they take a road trip into the desert, fulfilling Mave’s last wish as she’s dying of cancer. The novel is framed as a series of musings from Frankie (Mave’s niece) written to Mave’s lover, Ruth. Frankie’s parents died when she was sixteen, and Mave essentially raised her, though her role was more of a guardian, living in the house next to Frankie’s and keeping an eye on her from that distance, treating her more as an adult and a friend than a child in need of parenting. One of the core threads in the novel is the relationship between Frankie and Mave, which speaks to the larger questions the novel asks about love. What forms does love take? Does love need to be expressed to prove itself? Is love a finite resource, and are some people only capable of giving and receiving so much of it in a lifetime?
These questions are explored in a myriad of ways through the complicated relationships that exist between the characters. Nan is married to Dillon, who was the one truly passionate relationship of Frankie’s life, first a childhood friend, then briefly a lover. Frankie is married to Clay, a man she doesn’t love, but who is kind, gentle, and understanding. Ruth passed away several years ago, but she was the one true love of Mave’s life, and there hasn’t been anybody since. As a child, Frankie wrote letters to Ruth and received letters in exchange which fired her imagination, but as an adult, Frankie realizes she never really knew her.
Often you wrote of the desert, how in Sinai you heard the original language inside of language. How in Persia there could be no larger sense of night, of scope. Mostly you wrote about words themselves and about my own letters to Mave, which you’d been reading all along. Words without limits, blurred at the edges like bog land; words as rooms one walks into, words holding million-year-old-species like amber — see the trilobite and the ancient fern, the spinal column of something extinct still preserved in a word’s withered curve.
These explorations are quiet and meditative, as is everything in the novel. The story repeatedly touches on grief and loss, but not as dramatic touchpoints in the character’s lives, but rather as an inevitability, the cost of living. There’s an interesting tension between stillness and motion in the book. The story is that of a road trip with the characters literally always in motion. The narrative itself is constantly in fluid motion throughout time, recollections folded inside recollections in a non-linear exploration of the women’s intersecting lives. Yet at the same time, each character feels firmly stuck in place. They are either unable to pursue their desires, or uncertain what those desires are, caught in lives that aren’t fulfilling, and unable or unwilling to move on from their pasts. Ruth ends up representing a kind of ideal for all of them – the perfect love, the perfect life – but she is not a desire to move toward, she is safely in the past where she can remain idealized rather than realized, and no one has to hurt themselves further by trying to live up to her or confronting the reality of her existence.
The novel leans heavily into the literary and the poetic. It is grounded in the mundanities of everyday life, and yet dreamlike in its treatment of time, and fantastical in the flowery dialog the characters employ. It is a study in contrasts, and an interesting read for the rhythm of its language and its intimate exploration of the characters’ inner lives and the constant push and pull that exists between expectation and reality.