Canadian Literature Review of The Forest Horses

Canadian Literature review of The Forest Horses
Reviewed by: Paul Denham

Barclay’s Forest Horses is the most ambitious of the three, reaching from the present century back to the early years of the Russian Revolution and the harrowing siege of Leningrad by the Nazis during the Second World War. Signe, the central figure, born on the ice of Lake Ladoga during a desperate expedition to bring supplies to the starving city, is returning in 2004 from her comfortable life in contemporary Saskatchewan to investigate her origins. Her father was Russian, her mother Swedish; they escaped from the Soviet Union just after the war when Signe was five and took up residence on a remote Saskatchewan farm. Signe acquired an education and became a teacher of Russian literature in Regina—somewhat unbelievably in view of her uncertain grasp of the Russian language. The story of the forest horses is at the heart of the novel—how her bandit father Pyotr kidnapped her mother Lena and rustled her much-loved horses from the Swedish island of Gotland to Leningrad; how the two fell in love; and of how the horses became instrumental in bringing food into Leningrad and enabling some people to escape across the ice.

Signe returns to the city, now again named St. Petersburg in a quest to discover her parents’ story, which she knows is remarkable but only dimly apprehends. Her narrative, which is interleaved with those of Lena, Pyotr, and Pyotr’s sister, is, perhaps inevitably, less compelling than theirs. Their accounts of a Soviet orphanage in the 1920s, of the rustling of the horses by boat, of a city besieged, and of a daring mission across a frozen lake, are credible, stunning, and unforgettable. Signe’s story provides a frame for them, but lacks their urgency.

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