First published in April 2014.
Rumer Godden’s The Dark Horse has been published to celebrate the one year anniversary of the addition of children’s books to the marvellous Virago Modern Classics list. Godden was a prolific author and penned over sixty books during her successful career. The Dark Horse was one of her later books, first published as it was in 1981.
Dark Invader, a ‘beautifully bred racehorse’, is the dark horse of the novel’s title. He is introduced marvellously in the prologue: ‘He was born in Ireland in the early thirties, a big foal even longer-legged than usual, legs that were slender but strong, already showing incipient power’. After Dark Invader’s first racing season proves rather disappointing, he is sent from England to busy Calcutta, where he ‘wins the hearts of the people and becomes the firm favourite for India’s most famous race’. Just before this race is scheduled to begin, however, Dark Invader goes missing. The mystery element of the novel which ensues has been well plotted and gradually unfolds.
Many characters find their way into the novel’s pages. In the first chapter, we meet, amongst many nods to other shadowy figures, the horse breeder John Quillan – ‘Most of John’s owners were businessmen, of whom the British were the elite’ – and Mother Morag, Resident Mother of the Sisters of Poverty. Due to the introduction of many beings in just a short space of time, the novel does tend to become a little confusing as to who is who at times, and the nuns particularly become a little difficult to tell apart.
The first chaper of The Dark Horse opens in Calcutta, India, which Godden describes vividly: ‘In the cold weather there was mist, but it swirled above arid dust’. She sets out the history of the city from the very first chapter, dropping in details here and there as the story gains momentum, and placing them alongside the story – based upon true events – which she has crafted. She writes that ‘Calcutta never went to sleep… Most important of all in that arid crowded city, there were trees, grass, above all space… if there were any breeze, it was fresh’. The use of native Indian words – ‘tikka gharries’, for example – and the explanation of the currency, food and customs help to ground the story further, whilst also rendering it rather an informative novel, particularly for younger readers.
As with all of Virago’s Godden reissues, the cover design is gorgeous, and it is sure to delight any child – or adult, for that matter. Virago have recommended that The Dark Horse is suitable for children over the age of eleven. This benchmark is certainly in accordance with the slightly more complicated writing style than books for younger children tend to have, but it is not simplified in any way, so that those wishing to read it as teenagers or adults are able to do so. Despite the relatively modern period in which the novel was written, it feels delightfully quaint at times. The short sections throughout which make up longer chapters make it accessible for even the busiest readers, allowing them to dip in and out whenever they have the time to. The Dark Horse will certainly appeal to all of those who class themselves as lovers of horses, and those who enjoy books such as Black Beauty are sure to love it.