A book review: ‘A Horse Named Sorrow’

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By Zulfiya Trotter

The novel A Horse Named Sorrow by Trebor Healey is a moving tale of a physical, spiritual and metaphorical journey, undertaken by young Seamus Blake, an artist, a tutor, a missionary.  

The novel is appealing in its exploration of eternal topics of love, loss, and life. These three themes form a cycle that allow the writer to start the novel at its end; after all, life is a cycle, where the end is often the beginning. 

The past and the present in the novel form an intricate pattern that initially looks befuddling, but then the sorrowful harmony of its textual fabric takes control over the narrative, and a reader is immersed into the world of the ravaging AIDS epidemic in San Francisco in the ’90s. 

Seamus Blake, whose poetic vision of this world is as keen as that of his namesake, William Blake, engages readers on his personal redemptive journey to deliver the ashes of his friend Jimmy to his birthplace, Buffalo NY. 

His sojourn is reminiscent of other literary journeys, portrayed by Steinbeck and Kerouac. In that sense, this is a very American novel; it conveys authentically the bustling life of San Francisco with its small, crowded apartments as well as slow motions of innumerable American towns, motels, cafes, and churches.

The mundane life is interspersed with mesmerizing lyrical passages where nature gains virtually magical healing power. It is not accidental that Eugene, a Lakota, an emotional healer for Seamus,  revives Seamus and wakes his thirst for life and love in the scenes outside the big beehives metropolises.  

Seamus, who always commands himself, “Pull”, is the titular horse in the story. Unlike a literal horse, he is riding Jimmy’s bike that is decorated by numerous  rainbow strings and threads, and each has a story to tell, but these stories are deliberately left untold for us, readers. The narrative of this journey powerfully alternates with the story of Seamus’s happiest and saddest year, the year he met and lost Jimmy, the penetrating, bitter-sweet account of their love, dominant and demanding in its physicality and tender in its sensuality. 

This is when the novel reaches its highest emotional power. It is not only a heart-breaking account of a love story that turned Seamus into a widow or as  in his words,  “I wanted to say I’m Seamus Keane, his widow, or maybe Ms. Joseph, his number one squaw.” It is equally a novel with the strong social reflexion. Healey delves into the most poignant issues: the AIDS epidemic (the only acronym that Seamus ever mentions in the novel with his subsequent apprehension  of other acronyms), the Vietnam War,  and social intolerance. 

On par with the darker message of the novel, an amazing soul journey is also documented that combines Christianity, Buddhism, spiritual practices of the Lakota, and, most importantly, self-awareness as a two-spirit person, a winkte . Seamus is one of most spiritually susceptible characters who is always on the verge of true child-like sincere spirituality, reaching beyond the  borders of the physical universe and feeling more than ordinary people. 

The occasional prosaic fabric of the text is masterfully enhanced by allusions to Baudelaire, Tolstoy, and Munch. Seamus dauntlessly paraphrases some of the widely known cliches and quotations, adding literary spirit and boldness to his very intimate account.    

The end of the novel is as powerful as it is banal. Personally, I read it as a message of spiritual accomplishment and mundane loss that is eventually embraced by Seamus, the loss as an inseparable part of our life, an intrinsic element in the trichotomy of love, loss, and life. 

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