What I’ve come to learn about myself as a reader is that I am patient enough (who knew?) to enjoy epic novels that span generations (This one was 545 pages). And I’m nerdy enough to enjoy puzzling out long, beautiful literary sentences that may ramble (This book does include some of those). I also enjoy gently-paced, character-driven stories with layered thematic complexity and metaphors/similes that are subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle (To me, a complex book that is more than JUST a story is like a breathtaking treasure hunt – digging for and finding symbolism and ferreting out recurring themes and assessing ambiguity, all while reading an engaging story).
THE SPORT OF KINGS by C.E. Morgan offers all of those things and is magnificent on many levels – from the artistry of word choice to the gut-wrenching emotions lived through the pain of so many flawed characters. This is a story about history, about man’s thirst to dominate, about the pursuit of perfection and pleasure, about bigotry and judgement, about slavery in all its forms, about human-animal relationships, about betrayal, love and landscape, and family lineage.
There are twists and turns toward the end of the book that will leave you gasping. You will be privy to information one of the main characters does not have, and you will be screaming (in your head, or aloud, as I was)… “No… Don’t do it! Don’t do it!” What a roller-coaster of emotion, but it’s more than that. This novel is a soul-searching meditation on issues of race and genetics and history and answering the question of whether that history can ever be rewritten. It’s a topic that appears to have been written for the very times in which we live; it is no surprise to me that this book was nominated for a Pulitzer and Kirkus Prize (and many others).
Horse racing, it turns out, is the perfect metaphor to parallel the themes of human breeding and genetics – and ties in well with another theme related to man’s blinding and often devastating ambition and his impact on the human and natural world.
I still marvel at the author’s ability to pull so many different stories, characters and themes into a cohesive narrative, with all the pieces fitting together at the end. You’ll find stories within stories – folktales and biblical references, spanning back five or so generations of this family and leading up to 2006. You’ll find yourself sometimes unsure of who the narrator is (sometimes the narrator is addressing you, the reader. Sometimes the narrator is addressing the characters. At one point, the narrator is even addressing the AUTHOR; sometimes the author inserts herself into the narrative “As sure as I write this…”), but – oddly, for me (a stickler for ‘rules’), that wasn’t an issue. It still ‘worked.’ And frankly, it was masterful!
I chose THE SPORT OF KINGS for our book club, so I anticipate a lot of whining when we discuss it on July 8– ha ha – regarding length, complexity of sentences, pacing … (I have mentioned in the past that I can forgive a book a multitude of sins if the sentences are dripping in rich description, if they transport me and if I can live in the skin of the characters, even if it may appear they “aren’t doing much.”) BUT I also am certain that this will be one of the books that generates the most discussion of any other books we’ve read. It’s that good. If my book club members come to the table disliking this book, I do believe I can win them over with MY love and appreciation of this novel and this author’s incredible talent. I believe I might have taken more notes on this book than any other I’ve ever read…
Read THE SPORT OF KINGS if 1) You’re into literary fiction and authors who use experimental/creative literary techniques 2) You don’t need a plot that moves at breakneck speed from page one 3) You enjoy novels that tackle tough, tough moral issues and 4)You appreciate literary ambiguity that lets you draw your own conclusions. (Did I feel, at times, that an editor’s hand was needed to pare down some of the excessive descriptions? Yes. But did it detract from my overall feelings about this book? No! I want to go to Kentucky now, after the breathtaking descriptions.) Woo-wee … this one blew my socks off.
**I would give this book 10 stars if I could. **
THE SPORT OF KINGS by C.E. Morgan will make you think. In fact, I believe the author wrote with that intent, specifically. One line in the book states, “America has many ills, but none greater than the refusal of so many to think long and hard, to think critically. We must learn to be choosers, not merely receivers; to be self-critical; to cast a suspicious eye on the powers that be, including one’s own unearned power. We want easy answers, but we must refuse them. The only true answer is to think.” Yessss!
FINAL NOTE: I read the author’s slim debut, All the Living, which I adored. I will read ANYTHING this talented woman publishes. Check out Ms. Pegasus’s review for all the intriguing things I didn’t pick up on! I think this is one you could read and re-read and find new, hidden gems each time.
(A version of this review was published by Melissa Crytzer Fry at GoodReads on Jun 24, 2017. It is reposted here with the permission of the author.)