FCYU127 cover image See all stories from issue #127, Winter 2017

Feelings Without Words
Book Review: The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill
Mario Sanchez

Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare is an amazing novel about the friendship between three beings: Velvet, an 11-year-old Dominican girl from Brooklyn; Ginger, a white middle-aged failed artist who lives in Westchester; and Fugly Girl, a mare (female horse). The horse’s traumatic past haunts her so much she sees danger in the eyes of almost everyone who approaches her—just like Velvet and Ginger. Gaitskill takes us on a poetic journey across racial divides through sorrow, denial, discovery, and longing.

Velvet is visiting Ginger and her husband Paul through the Fresh Air Fund, an organization that sends underprivileged city kids to stay with a host family in the country for a week or two at a time. Fugly Girl lives in a stable near Ginger’s home and has deep scars on her head and a lot of aggression.

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The book is divided into short chapters from different characters’ point of view. Velvet, her mother Silvia, and Ginger all have intuitive minds. They see into people’s thoughts and feelings. They see the sadness around the corners of other people’s eyes and in the way they move and interact.

Velvet connects with horses intuitively as soon as she enters the stable. Velvet says:

“I could hear Fugly Girl kicking her stall like she was mad as hell. I heard her kick before, but tonight was different… She kicked harder, even more hating, and also something else, something I could feel coming from my own body, coming hard. I CAN’T GET OUT I CAN’T GET OUT LET ME OUT I NEED TO GET OUT I CAN’T GET OUT. The other horses made noises: We hear.”

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Velvet is the only person who can connect with Fugly Girl. Velvet is going through difficult times in school and dealing with the changes of puberty. She also experiences both verbal and physical abuse from her mother, Silvia, and can’t understand why. She is drawn to Ginger but struggles to trust her. Even thought Velvet isn’t literally caged like Fugly Girl, she feels the mare’s frustration and hears her longing for freedom.

My heart sank reading these passages. I relate to the feeling of being trapped, of wanting to get away from threats and violence to a place of gentleness. I sometimes feel like I’m suffocating when I hear people threaten others at school, on the subway, or on the street. All I want to do is escape and not have to witness it because I have witnessed and experienced violence my entire life. Loud, angry voices and noises like someone slammed against a wall make me feel uneasy and threatened.

Fugly Girl, whose past includes dangerous horse racing, an infected hoof left to fester, and a too-tight halter that left the scars, sees danger in the eyes of those who approach her. But with Velvet, she is different: gentler and softer. Velvet imagines Fugly Girl’s heart as stitched and scarred, like the picture of Jesus with knives going into his heart.

Usually when I read books I like, I turn down the corners of pages I want to re-read. Though I relate the most to Velvet as a character, I found myself marking the most pages from chapters told by Silvia, Velvet’s mother.

I am still unsure why I was more drawn to the violent person’s perspective than to the victim’s. Before reading this book, I generally focused on the victim’s point of view. But reading Silvia’s story made me realize that, like any other person, she has dreams and has gone through difficult things while still managing to stay alive. For example, Velvet’s father wouldn’t leave his wife for Silvia, and that pain made her hurt Velvet. She says she understands a mass murderer who’s on the news: “I want somebody else to feel pain.” I’d never thought about why an abuser would hurt someone close to them before.

Everyone should read this book—you don’t have to be a white woman of privilege like Ginger, or a Dominican girl from the Brooklyn projects, like Velvet, or an angry, disappointed mother, like Silvia. All the characters yearn for things we all do. Ginger longs to connect with someone who understands her. Velvet wants to escape from her life, even though she loves her mother. Silvia wants control but also the love of her children. They all crave encouragement, and attention, and love, but they aren’t good at asking for those things.

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