REVIEW: Call it Horses by Jessie van Eerden

Reviewed by Theresa Sowerby, Shura Price & Zoe Collins from Todmorden Wednesday Writers  

Writer: Jessie van Eerden

Publisher: Dzanc Books

Release date: 23rd March 2021

Price: £19.70

Take three women and a dog, pack them into a battered Oldsmobile and send them on a road trip to escape their confined lives – the women, that is; Ellis, the dog, lives wisely in the present, focused on his bodily needs. They set off from their home town, Caudell, West Virginia, constantly referred to as a bog and wetlands both literally and figuratively, to head for the desert.

The novel uses the convention of the road trip to throw the three women into a stressful but, paradoxically, liberating situation. We are made aware of the claustrophobic discomfort as Frankie’s hard-drinking, outspoken Aunt Mave (with stage four lung cancer, tubes and oxygen tank) jostles against image-conscious Nan. Frankie, aptly the driver, narrates the story in the form of letters to Mave’s dead lover and former professor, Ruth.

The women all seek to evade restriction through creative or academic activity. Mave fled from prejudice against her sexuality to a new town and college education, Frankie has her writing and Nan, superficially conventional and image-obsessed, is the creator of witty, sexually explicit street art. The artist, Georgia O’Keeffe, becomes a motif running through the novel, with her house open to the sky (in Abiquiu, New Mexico) the focal point of the trip.

The narrative shifts between chronological episodes of road trip and memories of Frankie’s childhood and youth. Orphaned in her teens, she is brought up by the unconventional Mave and later marries dull but kindly Clay. The device of using imaginary letters to Ruth enables this free flow of memory. One reader loved the constantness of her dialogue with Ruth and how fast and snappy the sections in the “present” are, and how dreamy and slow and examined the past is.

Ruth also serves as a mentor to the young Frankie, encouraging her to write. There are frequent references to the act of writing and the process of recollection, which most of us found effective but for one they were a little too self-conscious.

We loved the focus on female experience. Frankie runs a women’s co-op, a female place of safety and freedom, a warm, comforting, rowdy bolt-hole where the women can drink, talk, exchange goods and tune in to each others’ needs. One group member speculated that maybe the descriptions of the co-op meetings help explore the boundaries both physical and psychological of small town life.

Of all the women, Mave is the one who most leaps off the page. Her obtuse behaviour, sharp observations and comic excess are depicted with humour, and tenderness. There is underlying vulnerability and a love for Frankie touchingly expressed in the words For the first time in our lives, I held Mave’s hand, described by one reader as having great emotional charge in direct simple language.

Descriptions of landscape are precise and evocative, offering, according to one reader a deep connection between human emotions/psychological states and the physical landscape they inhabit. Short similes which nail a minor character (an evangelist like a tree trunk) are interspersed with more poetic, dreamlike evocations of a moment (The porch light stretched far enough to show where a clan of crocus had unsutured the ground.)

There were two small quibbles. The time period (the 1990s) does not seem securely rooted in specifics and we wondered whether someone of that generation from a similar background would find Frankie convincing. Also the author has Frankie emphasise the formative importance of her relationship with mirror self, Dillon (who later marries Nan and is violent towards her) but this intense relationship, presented through assertion rather than being embodied, always feels rather unreal.

Call it Horses is ambitious, both in structure and scope. Van Eerden offers some fine observation on human behaviour, sexual ambivalence and the nature of desire.

You can buy your copy of Call it Horses here.

Jessie van Eerden is the author of two previous novels, Glorybound and My Radio Radio, and the portrait essay collection The Long Weeping. She has won numerous prizes, including the Gulf Coast Prize in Nonfiction and the Foreword Editor’s Choice Fiction Prize. She teaches creative writing at Hollins University.

Todmorden Wednesday Writers are a group of writers, performers and reviewers based in Todmorden, a little town on the balance-point between Leeds and Manchester. Find them @TodWedWriters