I picked up Lesley Poling-Kempes’ novel Bone Horses whilst my roommates and I were on one of our signature runs for second hand books and Vietnamese smoothies in South Houston. At the time I had just finished Liane Moriarty’s masterpiece The Husband’s Secret and I was looking for something similar. A space had emerged in my heart that I knew must now be consistently filled. I wanted a female author and a story with an interesting female protagonist. There had to be a dark mystery of some kind, a certain amount of tension and suspense, and the characters had to be realistic, imperfect, relatable and struggling with complex issues. Moriarty is perhaps one of the most perceptive writers I have ever read from, and she is unmatched when it comes to creating sharply-drawn, fascinating characters that you form strong, emotional attachments to. Charlotte- the protagonist of Bone Horses– definitely met the requirements for the kind of Moriarty-esque heroine that I was looking for. Poling-Kempes does a good job in her creation of Charlotte and a couple of the other characters in this book. I was very much invested in their troubles and you get the feeling the author has spent a lot of time very carefully and expertly crafting their individual story arcs.
Bone Horses did contain the ingredients I was looking for in my post-Moriarty reading phase. It’s a book that contains mystery, romance, and well-drawn characters. But a book is never how you imagine it beforehand. Lesley Poling-Kempes took me on an unexpected journey that was fresh and original in its own right. I bought it because I thought it looked similar to The Husband’s Secret, but now that I have finished it the differences between the two are beginning to emerge. Although the characters and their internal conflicts are a great strength of the novel, I think I prefer Moriarty’s approach. The Husband’s Secret was more of a page-turner for me, and I think it’s the sense of intimacy I felt with the characters, the way it explores the psyche of modern day suburbia and the mundane. Charlotte, on the other hand, starts out as the type of character endemic to Moriarty’s works- she’s a sweet, predictable and unadventurous schoolmarm from the East- but she unravels and flourishes in a beautiful way as her life is upended with her trip to an environment that is rustic, mystical and ancient. The New Mexico desert is rendered in exquisite detail. In every review I have seen for this novel, the setting is held up as the crowning achievement. The Lagrimas Valley is a character in and of itself and its landscape permeates every aspect of the story.
In a lot of ways it seems like the novel is a love letter to New Mexico. Undoubtedly the most interesting thing you will take away from this book is how memorable the land of the Lagrimas is. It’s a book rich with atmosphere. The culture and geography of New Mexico are also woven into the narrative, which I thought was a nice touch. The herbal tinctures and native remedios play an important part in the lives of the characters. The animals- particularly horses and ravens- also play a huge role in this novel. The book has whimsical, mystical feel to it that is reflective of the author’s perception of the desert as a spiritual place. Events in the books seem to have the cyclical quality of fairy tales, and throughout the book there are subtle incorporations of magical realism. Everything in the land- its plants, rivers, birds, horses and peoples- seem connected in this magical way.
The book has an intriguing mystery, but the emphasis is really on the journeys of the characters and where they end up. It’s not really a book that’s concerned with twists; instead the revelations are teasing and gradual. We know who the killer is from early on in the book, even though none of the characters do. The villain is truly deranged and vile- the kind of character you can’t wait to get put down with extreme prejudice. He reminds me of the ghastly, hellish antagonists of Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor. I hated the character so much I grew impatient with his passages in the novel. He’s not someone I can sympathize with in the slightest. I did feel like the sense of imminent danger could have been handled better, but like I said, the book is primarily concerned with character development above all else.
I do recommend this book, so I won’t spoil it for you. Instead I will leave you with the core themes of what Poling-Kempes is interested in working with. It’s a story about family, the passage of time, the grieving process, and new beginnings. What I found particularly intriguing was the way the book explored the ideas of memory and local history. Charlotte finds that the story of her life is inextricably linked to this small town in the New Mexico outback, that her tragedy is shared with the community that seems to have been waiting for her. The events of the book seem to belong to everyone in the town, and it comes back to what I wrote about in yesterday’s post about the book’s treatment of love, and the idea that everything in the world of the Lagrimas Valley is connected. Poling-Kempes writes “I began to think about how the history of a place is fashioned by what people choose to remember. About how what we come to accept as the real story is unavoidably shaded and shaped by the subjectivity of emotion and memory” and it’s a facet of the human condition that I have long been interested in- the way we make our own truths, and how we are unable to separate our experience from the emotional viewfinder through which we interact with it.