The Sport of Kings by C E Morgan

Review published on June 20, 2016.

This was a Real Readers project that we thought you might like to see on nudge.

How to describe this book? Ostensibly it is about racing but really it is about race; about the legacy of slavery in the Deep South; about the importance of family and of name; about choice and the lack of choice; responsibility, for ourselves and for others. These are big themes and this is a big book. As I was reading I was constantly switching between thinking ‘this is an important book, this is almost brilliant,’ and ‘there is too much here, it thinks it is more than it is.’ Now that I’m finished I’m still not sure which camp I fall into. As far as plot is concerned this is the story of four generations of the Forge family and their relationship with the land and people of Kentucky where they have farmed since the land was first settled by white people. Henry Forge, growing up in the shadow of his dominant father, John Henry, determines to turn the farm into a racehorse stud and to breed the perfect racehorse. His daughter, Henrietta, is born to be the partner in and successor to his ambition of achieving perfection. In contrast to the life of privilege on the Forge farm, Allmon Shaunessy grows up in Cincinnati, the son of an absent white father and a poor black mother. Through twists of fortune he becomes the stallion groom on the Forge farm and his life and dreams become inextricably linked with the Forges. But the plot is really secondary to the ambition to tell the story of Kentucky and the deep divisions which still exist between the experience of black and white. The writing is dense and often convoluted in an attempt to describe the visceral pull of the land and of history on the present day inhabitants. There were moments when I didn’t really understand where the author was going with an idea and others, such as when she describes the coming of spring to Kentucky, when I just wanted to read the passages over and over again to savour the language. Every one of the major characters is broken in some way and it was often difficult to empathise with them, even as I understood what had made them act the way they did. The section about Allmon growing up in Cincinnati was the most straightforwardly written, the most compelling and heartbreaking. This is not an easy read, neither the dense writing style nor the dark themes of violence, racism and abusive relationships, but it is compelling and I wasn’t tempted at any point to give up. I certainly didn’t understand every nuance of this book but I did understand the passion of the writer for her subject and gained a new appreciation of the deep seated issues of race in the South, the long scars which haven’t healed. This is a book which is bigger than its characters and I think would reveal more on a second reading. It is ambitious and almost achieves its ambition.

Rebecca Kershaw ****

When this book arrived in the post from Real Readers and I saw the horses and jockeys on the cover, I wondered how they had found out that I was interested in horse racing, but as previous reviewers have stated this book is most definitely not about horses. There is so much more going on inside its pages and I really hope that people with no interest in racing will see beyond the cover to discover a book that has plenty to say about family relationships, genetics, race, poverty and inequality. Family is the most important theme in this book as the story follows Henry Forge from childhood through to late adulthood, tracing his troubled relationship with his father, his obsession with his daughter and his driving ambition to breed the best racehorse possible. The ‘nature vs nurture’ debate is addressed and genetics (both human and animal) are a constant presence in the book, defining many of the characters’ attitudes to both themselves and the rest of the world. Issues related to race also play a big

part, firstly in the form of some fairly shocking opinions and actions in 1950s Kentucky and then in an entire section dedicated to the poverty-stricken and traumatic childhood of the mixed-race boy Allmon Shaughnessy, who later works as a groom on the Forge horse farm. In fact, every single character in this book has something to tell us about how important one’s roots are, and at the same time how potentially damaging they can be. This is certainly not a quick read and can only be described as ‘epic’ in length, but it is also fairly epic in what it achieves, delivering thought-provoking insights and generating genuine emotion; I was particularly moved by the challenges Allmon had to contend with at such a young age. I did feel that the book was slightly too long and, for me, it did drag in a few places, but whenever it did it was only a few more pages before another surprising scene or clever character came along (Reuben the jockey was a particular favourite) to spark the interest again. It will almost certainly stick in my memory for some time. And any writer who can create such a striking and awe-inspiring character as Hellsmouth, who is not even human, is a winner for me.

Cathy Boyle ***

Every once in a while you read a book and you know it’s destined for great things, and this is the case with ‘The Sport of Kings’ by C. E. Morgan. I was sent an advance reading copy by Real Readers and was disappointed when I saw the cover and read the blurb, as the central theme of the novel is horses – horse breeding and horse racing, which I have absolutely no interest in. However, once I started reading I discovered that the book is SO much more than just a novel about horses. The main characters of the novel are the Forge family from Kentucky – the father, Henry and his daughter Henrietta. Forge by name and forge by nature – Henry breaks with the family tradition of crop farming by deciding to breed horses. His determination to uphold the family name and ensure its continuation at any cost has repercussions that will surprise the reader. Interwoven with the Forge family history is that of the people who will cross paths with them – the African-Americans who work for them and their family histories. Allmon Shaughnessy is the one who is out to forge his own success, and it is him that forces the Forges to confront their own history and that of Kentucky itself. I really enjoyed reading this book, and I can’t recommend it enough. Initially loathe to read it because I thought it would solely be about horses, once I started I realised that it is one of those worthy of the title ‘great American novel’. It’s about race, history, ambition, family and justice, interwoven with the theme of breeding. Allmon’s own history was for me realistic and the part that I enjoyed reading about the most as it was gradually revealed. I am so pleased that I had to read the novel for Real Readers or else I would never have picked it up – I can only urge everyone else to read it and not miss out on an excellent read!

Judith Griffith ****

This is not a happy book. It deals with important issues like racial struggle, family legacy, ambition and greed, abuse and rape with the theme of horse racing used in the background to illustrate the characters’ lives and destiny. This is the epic story of the wealthy Forge family and the farm they have run since the first white settlers arrived in Kentucky. Young Henry Forge, rebelling against his dominant father, decides to transform his family’s plantation into a racing horse breeding farm. Through his arrogance and ambition he aims to breed the perfect race horse and ensure the Forge legacy continues. He expects his daughter Henrietta to become his partner and successor in the quest for the perfect racehorse and to achieve his plans at any cost. Through Henrietta, the Forge family story gets linked with Allmon Shaughnessy’s family history, a tragic past of mixed race, hatred and struggle. Allmon’s father was a white farmer and his mother a black nurse who struggled all her life to bring her only son up. From lack of opportunities in life, Allmon gets involved with the wrong crowd and ends up in jail, where he learns the art of grooming horses. When he arrives at the Forge farm and gets a job looking after their promising race horses his life will make an irreversible turn. I found this a hard book to get into. The language it uses is very rich and dense, at times I could happily get lost in the descriptions of the American South and savour its detailed images and other times I wanted it to speed up and get on with the story. The author paraphrases from biology and evolution journals quite often to illustrate her views and background to the characters’ actions but I found this did not bring much to the story and could have done with a bit of editing. Also, the story is told in very long chapters where the action jumps from different timelines and I found this distracting and hard to get into. This is a very sad story where each and every character experiences tragedy and misery in their lives. The only happy characters are secondary to the main story (the vet, Henrietta’s teacher, Reuben the jockey…) and don’t get affected much by the main events. The main characters all have major flaws in

their personality and the way they behave so it is hard to relate to them and feel sympathy towards them. I am not very interested in horse breeding or racing but I found the Derby and horse race scenes were very exciting and they made a break from the depressing lives of the Forges and Allmon’s misery. This book deals with important issues like the legacy of slavery in the American South and racial issues which are currently still going on, with the ambition of wealthy white families vs the lack of opportunity of the poor black population, with abuse and rape and with the consequences of greed and ambition. However, because of the dense writing style, the jumps in the storyline and its inconclusive ending I don’t feel it will remain on my bookshelf for a second reading. I received a proof copy of this book from Real Readers to read and review and this is my personal and unbiased opinion.

Virginia Chico ***

In the opening scene, we meet young Henry on the run from his father for the crime of killing the neighbour’s bull. His strident denials, churlishness to a black servant, and childish whining did not initially endear me to him, or the book. Then we meet his father, an overbearing man whose impossibly high expectations of his son were unlikely to be met, for he seemed like the sort who would never be satisfied. Suddenly, the boy’s behaviour became a little more understandable, though never likeable. By page 23, I was all in. However, if I was hoping for Henry to grow up into a better man, I would have been bitterly disappointed. As an adult, he becomes a disturbing mix of his father’s faults and his own nature, a volatile combination. In this, he is not alone. Each of the main characters have strong personalities, destined to crash repeatedly into each other by the very nature of their ties to the family, the land, and the horses. Their feelings of unhappiness manifest again and again through extreme acts of anger, vindictiveness, and jealousy. Rape, lynching, death; all form part of the savage fabric of the novel. The vehement racism that runs through the plot varies from the ‘uppity Negro’ type to the pseudo-intellectual/philosophical/biological justifications for the white man’s supremacy. And I mean, ‘man’. Women have their own, very specific, role to play in this society. As heir apparent, Henrietta’s grooming for the top position is framed from the outset as being taught not to be like other women. The book is foremost about family, about lineage and blood ties. As with horses, genealogy and familial connections are imbued with meaning and expectation. The conflict, and inevitable catastrophe, is determined by the ways in which characters seek to subvert, or escape, the powerful chains these presumptions place on their lives. To say the book is challenging is an understatement. It’s a complex and surprising read, never following the narrative patterns you expect. Latin quotations and Socratic style dialogues are followed by disturbing scenes of violence. The writing has its own gait, disparate elements herded by Morgan into a comprehensive whole. It is this that ensures it stands apart, and highlights the author as someone stretching the boundaries of form. Many thanks to C. E Morgan, 4th Estate, and RealReaders for this copy in exchange for an honest review.

Emma Davis ****

A sweeping epic based in Kentucky. The Sport of Kings is a huge epic novel about the fortunes of one family, the Forges who settle in Kentucky in the nineteenth century and in particular the great grandson of the earliest settler, Henry and his daughter Henrietta. Henry has, against the wishes of his father , turned their farm into a stud farm and is intent on inter breeding the perfect racehorse. A family with racism built into their core, have their lives jolted by the employment of a black stable boy, Allmon who has had a tough upbringing including a spell in prison, is hugely ambitious, and embarks on a relationship with Henrietta. Henry does a deal with Allmon to share the fruits of success of their latest racehorse, Hellman, on the condition that he stays away from his daughter. I found this book pretty hard going, although well written its long descriptive passages makes the story slow to follow, there are chapters entitled “Interludes” which focus on descriptions not particularly connected with the plot and I found it hard to find the will to read them. The Forge family is entirely unlikeable in every way and the story touches on incest between father and daughter. There are scenes of cruelty to horses and a particularly graphic scene of the mating of two horses which Henry insists his 9 year old daughter is witness to much to the consternation of some of the stable staff. Henrietta is a sex maniac intent on having meaningless sex with everyone available. That said the story of Allmon’s early life is sad and he is a more likeable character at least initally. Altogether I could only recommend this book to someone with staying power and perhaps a particular interest in breeding race horses.

Jill Palmer ***

Real Readers sent me an advanced copy of this novel to read and review. Whilst I have little interest in horse racing, this is a book that is so much more. In some ways it is a family saga about the Forge family from Kentucky. Originally corn farmers, Henry Forge decided that he would break family tradition and breed thoroughbred horses, and that tradition was passed down to his daughter Henrietta. However, this story is intertwined with racial tensions, ambition and family tensions, especially when the African-American Allmon Shaughnessy enters into the story, and we learn his back history. So, although this may seem to be about horses, their training, breeding, racing etc., it is actually a great deal more than that. In fact it could become one of the great American novels, and not one I would have read had it not been for Real Readers. According to her biography on Wikipedia, C.E. Morgan studied literature and religion at Harvard Divinity School and she has been critically acclaimed for her previous novel ‘All the Living’.

Marjorie Neilson ****

This is a family saga encompassing the white Forge family in Kentucky and a black poor family in Cincinnati: linking their histories and obsessions and taking their fortunes forward. All is enfolded in the sport of horse-racing and hence horse breeding to achieve the top prizes. You compare and contrast the rich, arrogant white family with the struggling poor and the impenetrable barriers between them. You also compare and contrast the casual and sometimes violent coupling of people with the fanatical attention to bloodline breeding of the thoroughbred. This is an arresting and enthralling story but ultimately depressing as the only sympathetic characters are those on the periphery, like the vet. However, I think the book would have been better with some judicious editing: there are too many words (many obscure) of description of landscape, too many paragraphs about environment, geology, and quotation.

Carolyn Saunders ***

The Sport of Kings by C E Morgan
Fourth Estate 978-0007313266 hbk May 2016

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