Houman Barekat

The dark side of racing: Kick the Latch, by Kathryn Scanlan, reviewed

Adapted from interviews with a trainer from Iowa, Scanlan’s novel is a disturbing portrait of violence and squalor behind the scenes at racing stables

Kathryn Scanlan. [Melanie Schiff]

Kathryn Scanlan’s second novel Kick the Latch is adapted from the transcript of an interview with a family friend in her native Iowa. Its narrator, Sonia, looks back on her years as a racetrack hand in a series of vignettes. She recounts run-ins with violent men, a freak accident that put her in a coma, and interactions with assorted rural eccentrics, such as Bicycle Jenny, a notoriously pongy gardener who owns 70 chihuahuas, and Johnny Block, who keeps a pet crow and ‘some ferrets’. Animals ran amok on the trailer parks where she lived: ‘As soon as you stepped out your door the goose would come and – bam! – she’d nail you in the back of the leg… When I woke up, a goat was sat next to me, chewing on my sleeve.’

These reminiscences are interspersed with matter-of-fact accounts of equine care. Sonia imparts tips on feeding, drug-testing (‘Some drugs will show up in urine but not in blood – they’d rather have the piss’) and physiotherapy (‘If a hoof breaks, you need to grow it out, you put Reducine on a toothbrush and rub, rub, rub it on the cornet band’). We pick up bits of racing argot along the way: a horse’s legs are ‘wheels’; the stable area of a racetrack is ‘the backside’. The result is a quietly melancholic portrait of a working life both peripatetic and insular.

The novel’s diminutive dimensions (most chapters are no more than a page long) will be familiar to readers of Scanlan’s 2020 short story collection The Dominant Animal, which drew comparisons with that other American literary miniaturist, Lydia Davis. Its implicitly collaborative nature – the voice is essentially someone else’s – repeats a trick the author performed with her 2019 debut novel Aug 9 – Fog, which was inspired by entries in an old woman’s diary Scanlan had bought at an auction.

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