Review: Rough Magic
Title: Rough Magic: Riding the World's Loneliest Horse Race
Author: Lara Prior-Palmer
Publication Info: May 2019, Catapult. 288 pages.
Source: Library digital resources
For fans of Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, this is the extraordinary debut memoir of a young woman who traveled to Mongolia to compete in the world’s longest, toughest horse race, and emerged as its youngest and first-ever female winner.
At the age of nineteen, Lara Prior-Palmer discovered a website devoted to “the world’s longest, toughest horse race”—an annual competition of endurance and skill that involves dozens of riders racing a series of twenty-five wild ponies across 1,000 kilometers of Mongolian grassland. On a whim, she decided to enter the race. As she boarded a plane to East Asia, she was utterly unprepared for what awaited her.
Riders often spend years preparing to compete in the Mongol Derby, a course that recreates the horse messenger system developed by Genghis Khan, and many fail to finish. Prior-Palmer had no formal training. She was driven by her own restlessness, stubbornness, and a lifelong love of horses. She raced for ten days through extreme heat and terrifying storms, catching a few hours of sleep where she could at the homes of nomadic families.
Battling bouts of illness and dehydration, exhaustion and bruising falls, she decided she had nothing to lose. Each dawn she rode out again on a fresh horse, scrambling up mountains, swimming through rivers, crossing woodlands and wetlands, arid dunes and open steppe, as American television crews chased her in their Jeeps.
Told with terrific suspense and style, in a voice full of poetry and soul, Rough Magic captures the extraordinary story of one young woman who forged ahead, against all odds, to become the first female winner of this breathtaking race. goodreads
Note: some editions subtitle it the world's Wildest horse race. Probably the British version. They have a better cover, too.
You have no idea how tempted I am just to send you to the review that made me want to read this book (thanks, Jemima!). Instead, I'm resisting the urge to even look back at it until I've written this. My own interest in the story came partly because of the horses, and partly because I'm interested in Mongolia (mostly because my younger son spent a month there in 2015).
Something to know about me is that even though I've never in my life owned a horse, and haven't ridden probably above a half-dozen times, I was so horse-crazy as a kid that I knew *everything* about horses and riding--in theory. This book felt like it tapped into that kid, though a careful reading shows that Lara had a great deal more experience riding than she at first makes it sound.
Nonetheless, this is a memoir of a crazy adventure that should never have turned out so well. Even the author agrees: she almost regrets winning, because it's such a cliche: the unprepared underdog beats all the well-trained experts. Really she and the reader would be just as happy if she hadn't won, though her transformation from just hoping to last a couple of days to trying to win is part of what gives the book some substance and meaning. The race, in fact, is so radically unlike any other horse race I know about that it's no wonder Lara has trouble remembering she's racing. Happily, that allows her to at least occasionally notice the land she's riding through.
So on one level, this is a great adventure story about going off and doing something really wild and crazy. On another, it's the memoir of a young woman about her even younger self, and that shows at times. The writing is often lyrical--to the point of contrivance, in my opinion. Yet somehow her authenticity keeps it from being either annoying or artificial. It is, after all, the way a 19-year-old thinks, though Lara isn't quite like most young women her age, I suspect.
The saving grace of the story, both plot-wise and writing-wise, is that Lara never takes herself too seriously. Her self-deprecation is even deprecated as an excess of the standard British trait, but it is a constant reminder that she knows she's a teenager who has no business doing what she's doing.
I think the blurb is right: this is a good match for people who enjoyed H is for Hawk (I did, but didn't seem to review it). It's probably also a great read for any of us who longed for horses and adventure when young (note: I still long for adventure, but I'll skip the horses, and I know darned well my body wouldn't stand that abuse for a single day).
FTC Disclosure: I checked Rough Magic out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher for my honest review. The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."