This book was not easy to read, but boy, I sure liked it. (Thank goodness for the Battle of the Prizes - British Version, which gave me the impetus to read it.)
The subject is British horses who were donated as mounts for the British army during World War I, back when the horse was a vehicle of war. Such horses went from being pampered possessions used for hacking and foxhunting to being troop horses.
They started out being ridden across the lush green English countryside by fond, aristocratic owners and cared for by dedicated grooms, who kept their stalls fresh and dry, gave them baths and massages, fed them high-quality grain and hay, and saw to their proper veterinary and hoof care. And they ended up being ridden and cared for by British soldiers who might or might not have known anything about horses before receiving their training, on short, inferior rations and little water, across rough terrain and desert sand, in horrendous heat, while being shot at.
After the war, the army sold the horses off to the Egyptian locals rather than shipping them home. Their peacetime lot was worse than the war had been: endless work and poor nutrition, without the care and consideration that the British army had required of its horse soldiers.
Despite occasional bright spots, this is a story of their hardship, told in microcosm through the life and understanding of one Philomena, a tough mare who manages to survive the war while her several human companions do not.
It is also the story of Griselda, who mortgages her inheritance to travel to Egypt after the war, dragging along her daughter and the nanny, in the seemingly hopeless search to find Philomena and bring her home. Along the way Griselda flaunts convention, pays a social price for her behavior, defies good sense, and refuses to give up. For all her dainty English manners, Griselda proves to be a tough mare, too.
There is something quintessentially British about all this, both in story and in delivery. It is told in choppy style, largely through dialog and a disjointedly omniscient point of view. Sometimes it's difficult to tell what is happening, because British phrasing and references go unexplained and are not elaborated upon. Which is not to say it didn't make me weep at the end. An altogether marvellous book, made all the more marvellous by being based in fact.
This officer had regarded the mare measuringly, in the course of parades.
Many a dark brown had a mealy muzzle. A washier brown was a less common colour. Saddle marks, galls and injury had left white in her coat.
His fingers wandered over the dents in her quarter and belly.
A quality brown mare, with a mealy muzzle, an intelligent head and a neck the set-on of which was, a trifle, perhaps, quaint caused him to search his memory. Until, one day, he sauntered over to gaze at her in the lines; felt positive, and said, 'Isn't it Philomena? What is this horse's name, Trooper?'
Many a Prince or a Samson was Bobby or Blackie. Philomena had remained Philomena.
Grazebrook's face (long lashes and raddled cheeks) lit up!
The migrating storks flew overhead and there were blooms of every kind. The almond blossom had been displaced by fleshy green nut-cases. It was a time, in Palestine, of scented evenings, and of burgeoning insects.