Dark Horses by Susan Mihalic
Published by Gallery/Scout Press
Publication date: February 16, 2021
Genres: Contemporary, Debut, Fiction
Roan Montgomery is 15 and a world-class equestrienne. She lives in a rarified world with her every need anticipated and taken care of, but with each minute mapped out and no personal life. She doesn’t care because, in Dark Horses, Susan Mihalic’s debut novel, she has only one goal: Olympic gold. Roan’s family money isn’t the only thing in her favor—her father is Monty Montgomery, one of the best-known event riders in the world and winner of three Olympic gold medals. With him as her coach and the best horses, trainers, and facilities in the South, Roan is on a fast track to achieving her dream.
Of course, this is contemporary fiction and the simple story of a girl who loves horses and has a dream isn’t deemed enough to hold a reader’s attention so Mihalic wastes no time in ratcheting up the drama. In chapter one we learn her mother is having an affair with her school’s headmaster, that Roan calls her father either Daddy or Sir, and he controls every aspect of her life. It’s an explosive first chapter, but Mihalic only keeps going from there. Soon enough, it’s clear that Roan’s father is molesting her and even more chilling, her mother knows and doesn’t seem to care.
Mihalic simultaneously amplifies and deadens the impact of Roan’s situation by making her the novel’s narrator. She relays the details of her life—having been sexually groomed by her father since the age of four—with a detached nonchalance that is both horrifying and numbing. Her careful compartmentalization of her life doesn’t begin to crack until she meets a boy at school and they embark on a relationship. This is no small feat as Roan is not allowed online and doesn’t have a cell phone. As she starts to experience a teenager’s normal feelings and desires they conflict with what she sees as her ‘affair’ with her father.
Dark Horses pulled me in two directions. Roan herself, with her love of horses and her determination to achieve her dreams, is a magnetic character. There is so much about her to be explored. But her significance is overshadowed by the sex scenes with her father—words that make me cringe to type. Dark Horses doesn’t simply graze in the pasture of incest and move on. It burrows into the soil, poisoning every aspect of the story.
My final take on the novel? Mihalic is a strong writer and I’ll read her next book, but she goes too far in Dark Horses. I did not want or need Roan’s graphic details of the encounters with her father—a suggestion was more than enough. The scenes don’t enhance her confusion about what she perceives as her complicity and her own sexuality. That they are accompanied by additional extreme elements moves the novel into a sensationalistic space. I expected something of depth from Dark Horses but was left with pulp fiction.
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