What the Horses Heard, by Rebecca Gethin, a fine poet who is also a novelist, was published earlier this year by Cinnamon Press. It seems timely to mention it now, on Remembrance Day.
It’s refreshing to find a novel about World War I whose main characters are outsiders in the war. The two protagonists of What the Horses Heard are Orion, a conscientious objector, and his sister Cass, who becomes a groom for Army horses and disguises herself as a man. Both of them have been deeply affected by the accidental shooting of their brother, and by his deep love for the natural world. We follow the progress of the two siblings throughout the war, Orion’s survival through humiliating imprisonment and Cass’s journey into the battlefields of France as she tries to stay with the horses she loves. Cass too is incarcerated, though in an asylum rather than a prison. The end of the war sees their sad homecoming and hints at what their lives may become after the events which have changed them and the world around them.
Interested as I was in the carefully researched and well depictions of the war itself, for me what comes over most strongly in the novel are the beautiful descriptions of their childhood relationship with nature and, following from this, Cass’s deep care for the horses she tends. It seems to me that the writer is perhaps at her most comfortable in these aspects of the book. The horses are as much characters as the human protagonists, and Cass’s relationship with them is stronger than that with the people around her, highlighting the difficulties she has in negotiating the human world of bureaucracy and male dominance. Both she and Orion are profoundly isolated and because of what they have been through do not fit easily into ‘normal’ society. However, their return to the childhood home allows them to reconnect with the moorland places that have always been home to them.
Despite the suffering and destruction that have taken place, What the Horses Heard is not a pessimistic novel. It offers some kind of hope that the characters can rebuild their lives and retains a deep love and trust for the sanity of the natural world. I would certainly recommend it as a sensitive, thoughtful and unusual take on the lives of those caught up in the First World War.