The Sport of Kings – C.E. Morgan

“Evolution is a ladder, and our aim is to climb it as quickly as possible.”

Those Forges are motherfucking nuts.

The Sport of Kings tells the story of four generations of the Forge family. It begins with a young Henry, running away from his father, John Henry, across the Kentucky corn fields which belong to their family. Henry’s in trouble, not for setting off a firecracker which killed the neighbouring farmer’s bull, but for lying to his father about it and embarrassing the family name. For their name, and the status which comes with it, is everything to the Forge family.

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In the first chapter we’re told the family history, of Samuel Forge and his slave ‘who was called Ben but named Dembe by a mother he could not remember’ who travelled on horseback from Virginia to Kentucky and established the farm which seven generations of the family have born and died in by the time Henry Forge arrives in the world.

Henry’s raised and educated by his father – who won’t tolerate him attending school at a time when segregation is ending – to believe that he is superior to women, black people and poorly educated whites.

“What you don’t yet comprehend about women, Henry, is a great deal.” He stared at the cars as they flipped past. “I wouldn’t say that they’re naturally intellectually inferior, as the Negroes are. They’re not unintelligent. In fact, I’ve always found little girls to be as intelligent as little boys, perhaps more so. But women live a life of the body. It chains them to material things – children and home – and prevents them from striving towards loftier pursuits.”

Henry hates his father. His rebellion takes the form of declaring that when he inherits the farm, he’s going to abandon the corn and raise racehorses instead. His father forbids him but, of course, that has no bearing once someone’s dead.

The rest of the novel follows Henry as he raises a daughter – Henrietta (of course) – in the same manner that he would’ve raised a son. She is primed to take over the farm and continue the breeding of thoroughbreds. Henry, however, doesn’t account for two things: one, Henrietta is intelligent and feels trapped by her father’s overbearing nature, she has a wild streak and a desire for freedom, however she can find it. Two, Allmon Shaughnessy, the mixed-race, former convict, who Henrietta hires as a groom and falls in love with.

Morgan’s novel is ambitious. A family saga spanning several decades, which incorporates themes of lineage, breeding, class, gender and race. There’s a reasonably large cast of characters, some of whom last a few pages, others which span significant portions of the book. The structure means that the focus is primarily on the Forges, but the middle chapter is dedicated to Allmon’s childhood, a signifier that he will play a significant part in the Forge’s future.

Now Henry smiled a hard smile. His words were clipped, surly. “Why are you even here anyway? What do you want?”

With an almost inperceptible tilt of the head, as if he was honestly surprised by the question, Allmon said, “I want what you got.”

Henry’s scornful smile died. He drew himself up to his full height and said, “All my life, I’ve made my name. It’s the most valuable thing I have.”

“And I got the rest of my life to make mine.”

Without a pause: “You can’t make a name from nothing.”

We had quite a discussion about this book in the Baileys Shadow Panel forum. Eleanor applauded ‘just for the sheer fuck-you-ness of it’, particularly in reference to some of the eye-popping twists that Morgan pulls off. It’s difficult not to admire Morgan’s ambition; undoubtedly the book falls into the Great American Novel category and I’ll happily applaud any woman writer who throws her manuscript into that ring. However, aiming for something of that scope almost inevitably means there will be flaws. For me there are three key issues: the book’s too long; the novel really centres on the relationship between Henrietta and Allmon and the effect that has on Henry. The family backstory, which takes the first 90 pages, is interesting in its own right but, in terms of the elements which really effect the rest of the story, could’ve been incorporated into the rest of the narrative as and when necessary. The voice is inconsistent: every now and then Morgan throws in a section where the narrator talks to the reader. Often these sections point out the book’s flaws – prose too purple, characters acting too stereotypically, which is a risky strategy. Finally, the ending’s a little too neat. Morgan plays tight to her themes throughout the novel and the ending delivers in this sense but it’s all a bit too convenient.

Is it worth investing the time to read it? When it’s good The Sport of Kings is an absorbing read. Henrietta’s a fantastic character – she gives no fucks, metaphorically speaking – and Allmon’s story is an engaging, if grim, tale of a black boy raised in poverty and dealt a deliberately shitty hand by society. There are parallels with current issues around class, money, health care and police treatment of black people. My biggest disappointment was that, despite the feminist thread that runs through the novel, it would barely scrape through The Bechdel Test. Wouldn’t it be great if the Great American Novel didn’t have to be centred on the men to be seen as a success?

 

Thanks to 4th Estate for the review copy.