book review: Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer

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ROUGH MAGIC: RIDING THE WORLD’S LONELIEST HORSE RACE by Lara Prior-Palmer
★★★★☆
Catapult, 2019

 

Rough Magic is a coming of age story, an interrogation of naked ambition, and a self-conscious meditation on English colonialism, all wrapped up in a thrilling tale of a 19-year-old girl entering and winning the most difficult horse race in the world. Lara Prior-Palmer’s underdog story couldn’t have been any more pitch-perfect if it were scripted: she entered the Mongol Derby on a complete whim, underestimated its difficulty, was dismissed by the other competitors early on, but still rallied to become the first woman to win the race and the youngest person ever to finish. But it’s far from the conventional sports memoir, as winning is never really the point, or even the goal, for Lara, whose motivation for entering the race is hazy even to herself.

This book’s greatest strength is something that often irritates me in memoirs: that Lara doesn’t have much distance from the experience she’s writing about (she won the race in 2013, her memoir was published in 2019). Had she waited 15 or 20 years to tell this story, it could have been more polished, more articulate, but that sophistication would have come at the detriment of its charm, its passion, its frenetic energy. Perhaps the most successful thing about this book is that due to her lack of emotional distance from it, Lara doesn’t place her own character development front and center; instead she takes us through the race step by agonizing step, showing us rather than telling us about the physical and psychological toll it was taking. This entire memoir cleverly circles the question ‘is naked ambition in and of itself a virtue or a vice?’ (a character trait she sees reflected in her main competitor, Devan) – and the few moments where Lara zeroes in on it have the emotional punch they’ve earned.

“Our pace slowed. I began imagining Clare and Kirsten catching us. Nothing is swift as thought—I felt it jumping through me. But riding in a big group just wasn’t efficient. It was a simple thought, and when it came, I knew the race had me.”

And then, shortly after:

“What if I wanted to win for myself, without wanting to beat Devan or please Charles or any other audience? It’s a lonely thought; I wish I were strong enough for it.”

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Photo credit: Richard Dunwoody

All that said, this book isn’t the easiest to settle into; Lara Prior-Palmer’s prose is almost a perfect reflection of her flighty, restless nature – she jumps from one thought to another with no preamble, she constructs an elaborate metaphor unnecessarily and follows it a bit too long. But there were also lines that I adored, that I found especially resonant (more than enough to compensate for the more awkward passages), like:

“I’m just so used to swallowing myself as I speak that I can’t help seeing self-assuredness as indulgent.”

So while I don’t think this was a perfect book (not that anything is a perfect book), I do think it was a really special one that I enjoyed reading immensely, that filled me with anxiety and excitement in equal measure. Lara Prior-Palmer is a fascinating, sympathetic, strong and vulnerable person who doesn’t spare herself for a second on the page, making this story as personal as it is informative about the Mongol Derby. I’d highly recommend Rough Magic if you like horses, coming of age stories, underdogs, memoirs about young women, or any combination of the above.


You can pick up a copy of Rough Magic here on Book Depository.

11 thoughts on “book review: Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer

  1. This is both super outside my wheelhouse (I am not into sports and particularly not into horses) and super inside it (memoir! by a woman! doing cool stuff!). I wish the cover was better though.

    Liked by 1 person

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