I came to Rosalind Belben's novel Our Horses in Egypt with high expectations - it won the
James Tait Black Prize for Fiction, I'd read excellent reviews and Mark's most interesting interview with the author - and I've discovered that its reputation was well-deserved. What an achievement this book is, both in terms of style, content and tone; it could so easily have been off the mark, but it's spot on.
The story is two-stranded: we follow the fate of Philomena, a hunter requisitioned by the Dorset Yeomanry, who serves in Egypt and Palestine until the end of the First World War but does not come home afterwards, and that of her former owner, the redoubtable Griselda Romney, who in 1922 decides to travel east, with her young daughter Amabel and Nanny in tow, to try to find her horse.
I can't give away any more of the plot than that, but it is a gripping, completely unsentimental read, and a highly skilled combination of extremely well-researched but never intrusive fact and very plausible fiction. Its style is original: concise narrative, almost terse 'commentary', distinctive, pithy speech, but it's the ability of Rosalind Belben to put herself - and therefore the reader - in the horse's position which is so remarkable, and that is where the book's power lies.
I'll digress for a moment to one reference I recognised which interested me - Amabel "read to Nanny, stumbling, 'Pilot', from 'Pilot and Other Stories'..." That's a 1916 book by Harry Plunket Greene, famous singer, fisherman and writer (you can see him here, and there's more in this post) of whom we have a recording which includes the very sad folk song "Poor old horse".
But back to the book itself and its account of war (and life) from a horse's perspective, and then the plight of the animals left behind, something which so appalled Dorothy Brooke on her arrival in Egypt in 1930 that she set up this remarkable equine charity. You will learn much from the novel, and you'll be affected by it, but it is written with such emotional control that though you may remain dry-eyed you are unlikely to forget it.