Building a Novel blog review of The Forest Horses

Building a Novel review of The Forest Horses
Reviewed by: Lisa Guenther

I recently finished The Forest Horses, by Saskatchewan author Byrna Barclay. Barclay is a well-established author, and tends to mention my neighbourhood (Livelong, Saskatchewan), which is part of the attraction for me. But she is also a tremendous writer.

The Forest Horses was published in 2010. For some reason, it didn’t receive a lot of media attention, which is a shame. I can’t quite figure out why it was overlooked, especially since it won the John V. Hicks Award before it was published. However, it is well worth a read.

Signe is a Canadian woman of Russian-Swedish heritage, who travels to Russia looking to reconnect with her family history and find a better way to deal with her grief. Signe’s story is a little quiet and subtle. One of the few reviews I found on this book described this narrative as fractured and weaker than the historical narrative, but I don’t agree. I thought it tied in well to the historical narrative, and Signe’s reflection and quiet, complex grief added dimension to the story.

Lena, Signe’s Swedish mother, is the other main narrator of this book. Lena is a horse-crazy young woman (which I related with very well), growing up in rural Gotland, Sweden. Lena is kidnapped by Pytor, a Russian horse thief, and transported, along with her Gotland Russ (forest ponies) to Leningrad. Leningrad is under siege from the Germans, and most of Europe is caught up in World War Two.

I think there are several things that Barclay does well. First of all, she must have done an incredible amount of research on Gotland, Stalin’s Russia, the siege of Leningrad, and even modern Russia. She incorporates this research so seamlessly that I felt like I was there, seeing, smelling, feeling, hearing everything the characters did.

While this novel is quite epic, Barclay grounds it by giving us such strong characters. Her character’s voices all felt authentic and rich and very different from each other. I really cared about the characters, and found myself worrying about their safety as they struggled to survive in Leningrad.

A slight spoiler coming up here. There was one non-human death, late in the book, that made my cry my little eyes out. Afterwards I asked myself why I was so upset over this one death, when there were so much hardship in this book. I guess that it’s partly because I’m an animal lover, but I think this last death it also symbolized all the other sacrifices and human tragedies.

Stalin once said something along the lines of “the death of one man is a tragedy, but the death of millions is a statistic.” Barclay’s novel reminds us of the human stories behind those statistics, and how these stories affect newer generations.

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