Daylight Second by Kelly Ana Morey (HarperCollins NZ, 2016), 352 pp., $36.99
We take pictures, we write; some of us come up with interesting, even beautiful stuff, but invariably the person doing it for a job is more reliable, more comprehensible and has more follow through in the job they do. In this sense Kelly Ana Morey, whom I had never read before, is a professional. She seems to have researched and written books on command for limited audiences – a girls’ secondary school here, a Royal NZ Navy base there.
This new novel, really a work of docu-fiction, is a very competent and coherent achievement, letting the sharp light of her imagination play on a well-documented and justly famed horse, Phar Lap, and (so to speak) fleshing out a skeleton and delivering a text that convincingly brims with life and deals with death.
Let’s start with a couple of my own preludes:
First prelude: Ten years after Harry Telford’s death, late 1960s, in the public bar of the Kiwi Hotel, Auckland; Wally and me behind the bar. Paddy Murphy the morgue attendant, a regular, comes in every evening and broods over an eight of DB Draught, which I tap and put in front of him, not a word said. Never much of a talker, Paddy; reckon his clients aren’t overly loquacious either.
The butchers from down the road usually saunter in around then: Snowy, Eric and Theo. Chatty guys, their talk is of racing, totes, odds, form, breeding and turf as they quietly share their jug or two. Once, Eric won 82 dollars for a place and shouted a round to everyone, including Paddy Murphy. He always leaves just before six, possibly hasn’t noticed that pubs close at ten now. One night he leans over and speaks to me softly, almost secretly: ‘I like horses’ (I won’t attempt the roiling Irish accent). Turns, pushes his trilby on his head and saunters out.
Second prelude: Forty years after Harry’s death. Our place, late. Rick Waswo, Professor Emeritus of English, finishes the dregs of my single malt whiskey. ‘Novels,’ he professes, ‘are about adultery … and money.’
You’re half right, in the case of the book I’ve just enjoyed, Rick. Horses … and money. Money, both the astronomical sums a horse can earn and ‘people (noticing) that there’s not as much in their pockets at the end of the week when the landlord and the butcher have to be paid.’
Money is power and magic in a period of grave economic depression and massive unemployment, when the glamour of winning means glitter and comfort for a while. The character of David Davis – ‘a client with a bit of money’ – is described explicitly and with some scorn as ‘liking money more than horses’.
Kelly Ana Morey, apart from being seriously horsey, is a library rat with attitude, and the book is certainly meticulously researched; she advisedly uses the conventions of fiction to allow for a smooth and accessible narrative.
Docu-fiction? Maybe, but certainly a very carefully presented and readable account of a legendary racehorse, as the other reviewers say, although, tired and constipated old pseudo-intellectual that I am, I tend to trip over fetlocks and wonder what the hell a furlong really is as I take solace in Google. Reminds me of the mainbraces, shrouds, topgallants and grapeshot of a comparable writer, C.S. Forester, whose ‘Hornblower’ series I devoured my teens. (A furlong is apparently 660 feet, 220 yards, 40 rods, or 10 chains.)
Adultery? Sex? Torrid hot scenes? Loose living? Nah, the book is written in the chaste and slightly puritanical style that one would associate with mainstream fiction of its period, the inter-war years, and one can visualise it on the shelves of a provincial public library. If you want raunchy bits, I reckon Jilly Cooper is your likeliest bet.
The story – and the horse’s – origins, are in the South Island; chill dusky scenes that Morey depicts with a bleakness and play of damp, lamplit interiors worthy of Dan Davin. Another author who comes to mind is novelist Maurice Gee in his puritanical Plumb phase.
There is courtship in the book and long, long engagements: Tommy and Emma, walking out, going to the pictures and dances, two marriages. But Harry and Vi’s relationship ends tragically around the death of a child paralleled with the death of the beloved horse, which leaves Harry, the bereft trainer and central figure of the narrative, as wrecked and essentially useless as he was before the few short years of his fame.
Harry Telford’s portrait is masterly: Morey depicts a mediocre, rather grumpy Kiwi bloke who takes his main chance when he leases an ugly oversized gelding in which he profoundly believes. ‘As Phar Lap crosses the line an impressive four lengths ahead of Mollison a huge grin fissures its way across Harry’s face,’ she writes, after an early win. ‘“You beauty,” he says, pleased as a cut glass bowl of punch at a church dance.’
Harry is not one to crack a grin often – it happens maybe two or three times in the whole narrative. To his employees, above all Tommy Woodcock the strapper (another beautiful and completely sincere portrayal of a historical figure in this legend), Harry is a grumpy old bastard (pardon the swearword) to whom Tommy remains totally loyal:
‘Whatever you say boss,’ Tommy replies. ‘I blimmin’ hope you’re right.’
‘No need for coarse language, Tommy,’ Harry says mildly.
‘Sorry boss …’
Generally one of the pleasures of reading this novel is the authenticity of its language, a language that harmonises perfectly with the hands-on and down-to-earth nature of the main characters. Morey’s approach to her protagonists, which she shares with the likes of Shakespeare and Dickens, is to have a hierarchy of characters: what E.M. Forster called the ‘round’ character and the ‘flat’ character in his classic Aspects of the Novel (1927), a text contemporaneous with the time frame of Morey’s tale.
So, in Dickens’ novels we perceive characters in a hierarchic way, the thoroughbreds and the also-rans in racing parlance. Oliver, Pip and a few other Dickensian heroes are described or depicted with an unparalleled psychological depth, while other characters are usually suspended in the narrative for their picturesque value, like peaches in a jar at the A&P show.
Morey uses the same technique, leading to a complex interplay of the main protagonists and a varying chorus of the lesser characters, many of whom seem to be fished out from the B-grade central casting pool. Doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable, the boarders in Mrs Bone’s house over their roast mutton witness some terrific riffs between the sexy Russian émigré Petrov, who drives the old maids wild and sees through the scheming Mrs Madigan, spotting her profession at a glance. She is obviously acting as a spy for Davis and his schemers, trying to crash a betting syndicate. Must admit I was a bit lost there in the subtleties of Turf accountancy.
Interestingly, many reviewers of this novel seem to melt down in tears at the scene of Phar Lap’s untimely death in a dubious speakeasy country club setting in Mexico. Why didn’t I? Because I’m a farmer’s son, I suppose: there is an early summary execution of a horse that breaks a leg in training, which shows the business end of a pretty brutal trade with startling clarity:
The fiery little mare missteps shattering her front offside cannon bone. Within five minutes she’s been put out of her misery with a bullet between the eyes. Her carcass is picked up by the local hunt for the hounds.
The farmer’s son in me nods sadly and goes on, as the trainers and riders do too. ‘Death and horses go hand in hand,’ the text remarks, ‘one of the lessons young Harry learns that day.’
For the major characters there is a structural symmetry in the narrative of the work: It opens with Harry’s death in hospital in 1960. And the story essentially ends with Phar Lap’s death in that Mexican stable. Both deaths are accompanied by close relations: Harry’s son Cappy is by his father when he ‘heads for the finishing line, his stride falters, and fails’. As for the horse, his groom Tommy is there who ‘knows it’s all over bar the shouting and the tears … his life escapes him leaving nothing but daylight behind’.
Fine figurative writing. Kelly Ann Morey is not Thomas Mann and there is no attempt to somehow weave the two scenes together with a verbal cluster or Wagnerian leitmotif. No pretension. Finished.
So, two last things:
First epilogue: Public bar, Kiwi Hotel, Auckland, late 1960s, ten years after Harry’s death. Jimmie Wong, a regular, only comes in some evenings. Others, he helps his brother stack the crates of vegies at their greengrocer shop. A good listener, he occasionally joins in the butchers’ conversation. They lend him a respectful ear. Wally tells me that Jimmie’s main income is from the horses. ‘He’ll wait half a year and then place a bet of a few grand on a sure-as-hell winner with low odds. Double his capital, and go back to living quietly.’
Second epilogue: Eighty-six years and 7 months after Phar Lap’s death. On the way home from the supermarket. A green field with a forest background. Happy horses cavorting in the sun …
MAX OETTLI is a photographer, archivist, researcher and writer who grew up in the Waikato and who divides his time between Switzerland and New Zealand. He is currently resident in Dunedin.