Spanning decades, Byrna Barclay’s The Forest Horses is an unconventional love story, a passionate tale set in Russia, Sweden, and Canada. The tale is comprised of four stories intertwined: Pytor is a Russian horse thief who abducts Lena–a Swedish teenager–along with a herd of forty ponies which are the forest horses of the title. Eventually they marry, and daughter Signe is born to Pytor and Lena, as they lead a pony caravan carrying food to the starving, and evacuating refugees from war torn Leningrad during the German siege in 1941. Maryushka, Pytor’s sister, ‘does her part for her country;’ and the reader is exposed to an evocative and detailed description of the denigration of her life and Leningrad.
Barclay seamlessly works in historical detail through Maryushka, a worker for the war effort who spends her days on an assembly line. From fear of being accused of treason, Maryushka works herself to the bone for a country that cannot provide her with food: “Food. That’s all the women at work ever talk about now: what’s for supper tonight, how hungry they still are, till it turns Maryushka’s stomach, and she wishes she could lose interest in food…. Panic spreads within her like a swarm of angry bees”. The reader begins to feel the stomach pangs and the numb frozen fingers.
Between Lena and her kidnapper, there is sexual tension even before they leave her father’s property: “He says: ‘I no hurt you.’ He lets go of her left wrist so she smacks him one, right on the cheek, good. It sends his red star cap flying. Her skirts are bunched up, baring her legs, and all her wiggling and writhing arouses him… but he shouts: ‘Girl, be good. Let you go, I will’.” Lena turns out to be a practical young woman, and, much later, she is the one who confesses love, and instigates the romance.
Signe, in 2004, blames herself for the boat accident that killed her daughter, forever changed her son, and took her marriage. Water imagery is carried throughout Signe’s story. Governed by grief, Signe “makes her son practice [violin] in the back yard… where she can’t hear his compositions. Long and haunting, they make her think of waterfalls, rapids, water dripping on stone. Sometimes she wishes he’d have one of his fits and smash the violin, a final dashing of her hope for any degree of recovery”. She challenges her fear of water by taking a Russian riverboat tour with an eye out for a wise person who can help her salvage herself.
Byrna Barclay has produced an outstanding work of historical fiction, a quartet of complicated interweaved melodies, containing beautiful transitions and intriguing parallels between characters. The Forest Horses reads as historically accurate, at once a tragedy, a love story, and a tale of personal growth. I was sucked in by the suspense, and spit out nearly four hundred pages later feeling tender towards these characters, and knowing that I am going to miss them.
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