This collection of quirky but informative essays is something of a companion piece to Jane Smiley's novel Horse Heaven, published in 2000. In each book, horses are depicted not as insentient beasts but as characters with human, and sometimes superhuman, attributes. Both the novel and the essays affirm a deep current of affection between human and horse and build to a philosophy of life in which chance seems to shape itself into destiny—or what Smiley suggests is the always mysteriously appropriate denouement of any project or plan.
Only incidentally about horse racing, A Year at the Races is an informal series of essays which discuss the psychology of horses as well as the psychology of the humans who love them. As in Horse Heaven, Smiley does not concentrate on one unified narrative thread but moves along in an open and unpredictable way, using the various ups and downs of life with her horses to draw larger philosophical lessons. Peppered with fifteen photographs of Smiley's horses, her trainer, or herself, the narrative is personal as well, its first-person voice establishing a conversational relationship with the reader.
For Smiley, every horse story is a love story, and each chapter concerns not simply the ins and outs of raising thoroughbreds but also the more intimate story of the mysterious and often intense bonds between herself and her horses. While Smiley quotes liberally from various expert texts on horses, and includes a scholarly bibliography at the end of her book,A Year at the Races is nevertheless an informal, anecdotal narrative which develops portraits of her own horses as individuals. Of equal importance is Smiley's own psychological journey, which began when, after winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1992, she treated herself to the purchase of her first horse, a thoroughbred gelding named Mr. T. Although appearing to be a scruffy and unprepossessing creature, Mr. T surprises Smiley with his uncanny intelligence, very similar to that of a horse of the same name who appears in Smiley's novel Horse Heaven. It is the redoubtable Mr. T who launches a career for Smiley as an owner and trainer of horses.
Although this new occupation threatens to displace her identity as a novelist, Smiley celebrates the new endeavor as a life-changing one that has allowed her to realize her true destiny. In one of the book's most significant passages, Smiley confesses that it was Mr. T who forced her to address her fears, as if together they were conducting a secret course of therapy for her. She goes on to suggest that all the anxieties and problems she has experienced in the course of raising her thoroughbreds has, ironically, resulted in making her more serene, accepting, and philosophically optimistic than she was before she entered the world of horses.
In addition to exploring the healing nature of her relationships with the horses in her stable, Smiley uses her novelist's feeling for character to develop a series of convincing portraits of horses that have fairly complicated personalities, with specific emotional issues, opinions, and life stories. Mr. T's unusual intelligence and love of ritual is one example of Smiley's central thesis: that horses, like people, have unique personalities and histories. Her horse Persey, for instance, is a skittish filly whose fragile personality seems to have been a result of mother-daughter problems often disclosed on the human psychotherapist's couch. As Smiley diagnoses Persey's feelings of maternal abandonment, the reader witnesses modern psychology being brought to bear on equine inner lives. Alternating theoretical passages with case histories of her horses, Smiley uses chapters with titles such as “Neurosis,” “Ambition,” and “IQ” to persuade the reader that horses are animals with aspirations, intellectual and social skills, and even psychic abilities, that can love and be loved just as human beings can.
Smiley allows herself to digress while describing the world of turf and paddock, touching at times on arcane lore and other times on widely held theories of horse behavior, occasionally citing her life as a mother and a writer, at other times allowing the reader into her moments of introspection and self-analysis. There is,...
(The entire section is 1741 words.)