StarPhoenix Review - The Forest Horses

Saskatoon Star-Phoenix
Reviewed by: Bill Robertson

Proof novelists can invent their stories, Regina writer Byrna Barclay's latest novel, The Forest Horses, is a mixture of stark, often brutal fact and a strong piece of fancy. As with many recent Canadian novels, there are two stories taking place simultaneously here. The one features a woman named Signe who leaves Regina in 2005 to venture to the place she was born, on the ice of a lake in Russia during the Second World War. The other story, and the one which requires from Barclay the most measured use of historical fact combined with vivid glosses of narrative, takes place in 1941In the early days of the Second World War, on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, Lena, a teenage farmgirl, lives with her parents. Here, they take care of a special breed of horses -- the russ, or Gotlandrussen -- small animals of the forest. Lena looks upon the work as a sacred trust and has a special affinity with them, especially the alpha male, Thor. As German war planes increasingly roar overhead on their way to Russia, and Lena tries to live the life of a teenage girl-trying to obey her parents while devoting herself to her horses and hearing the siren call of the local fair-a Russian poacher has something else in store for her.

Pytor is a young, Russian outlaw from Leningrad who exists on a knife-edge between the Soviet bureaucracy with its NKVD police enforcers and the criminals who live outside of Soviet rules. He's neither liked by, nor likes, either. With some advance money from a criminal kingpin, he's gotten himself a self-propelled barge, sailed over to Gotland, and is intent on rustling the little horses he's heard of, bringing them back to Leningrad, and selling them on the black market. Two things Pytor doesn't count on when he comes to steal the horses are, one, there will be a young woman -- and a rather feisty one at that -- with the animals. To get them, he has to kidnap her, and that in itself is quite a scene. Because everyone's at the fair, this amateur horse thief is able to make use of Lena's corralling powers and somehow get all of his captives aboard his barge and off to sea. In terms of imaginative gloss, Barclay is certainly vivid, even whimsical, here.

The other problem Pytor should have counted on is the war itself. He sails back across the Baltic Sea, Lena down in the hold with the horses keeping them calm, then up the Gulf of Finland, tucked in behind a minesweeper. The woeful little ark makes it into port near Leningrad as warplanes scream overhead and mines and ships explode around them. Where, exactly, Pytor harbours his bizarre and restless cargo while getting a now ill Lena to his sister's, evading both the NKVD and his criminal underwriters, all as Leningrad undergoes the early stages of the siege that will nearly kill it, is a mystery left unexplained.

Barclay juggles these three principal characters' stories, Lena and Pytor in 1941 and Signe in 2005, the three of them moving ever closer to Lake Ladoga, where Signe is born on the ice as her parents, now united in common cause, help to relieve the starvation of the Siege of Leningrad. Barclay also brings in Pytor's sister, Maryushka, who not only provides background on Pytor, but gives many harrowing details of the siege as the buildings tumble down and the bodies pile up. Her accounts of daily life are gruesome and riveting.

Offsetting the historical fiction is Signe's search for her birthplace. Having undergone a horrific loss in her own family, she is traveling to Russia to try and find her parents, their past, and something of herself. Compared with the almost fantastical narrative of her parents' lives, Signe's troubled cruise on a ship full of birdwatchers and tourists is about as wild as a holdup at a soap factory. But it's timely. As many of the veterans of the Second World War die, their children and grandchildren are suddenly becoming aware of what they're losing, and what their parents never spoke about. Signe, by looking at her own loss, begins to imagine those of her parents. And it's quite an imagined story, all those little horses on the ice as a baby is born. Barclay reminds us, that amidst the new, potent and of non-fiction out there, novelists are allowed to invent some, if not all, of their stories. And The Forest Horses is a gleaming bit of invention.

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