The Year of the Horse
In The Year of the Horse, sculptor Sam Mahon recounts the year he spent making of a life-sized bronze sculpture of a horse and rider, the archetypal Southern Man, for the brewing company Speight’s. The first-time author details his dealings with Speight’s (testy), introduces the friends that helped him (generous), and shares with the reader the excursions that he and his partner Alison made (breath-taking) during what was a difficult year. “The problem with the horse project,” as he puts it, “is that it was never at the right time, never has been.”
The strongest thread of the book is the story of turning a tonne and a half of bronze into the likeness of a horse and rider; and this is the part where Mahon mostly closely draws the reader in:
The barn air was thick with flux fumes and my hands were aching from holding in place the large bronze panels. Alison was remaking a mould for part of the mane that had filled with steam during the pour and came out looking like Swiss cheese. Her hands were covered in plaster and from time to time she tilted her head back to relieve the ache in her shoulders.
The pair struggle as the making of the horse and its rider and meeting the Speight’s deadline start to crowd out their other pleasures. “Can we afford to live like this? Living without the river, days like these? That’s the question,” Mahon laments.
At one low point he contemplates giving up the commission, but in the end the pact he’s made, not with Speight’s, but with himself, sees him continuing:
It was like setting out to cross the mountains and having the weather turn against you. You know you’ll get there, it’s just a matter of sticking it out, making the rations last and plodding on. In the end it’s an achievement just to arrive in one piece.
The pair relieve the hard physical work of making the sculpture by escaping to climb mountains or to fly in their light plane over the local countryside. Mahon’s love of the landscape shines: “Countless ridges of broken country floated away from us to the east in a rhythm of loneliness like the crests of a petrified ocean.” The view from his plane of a local town is equally as vivid: “The little houses clotted together like pebbles and moss, an ecosystem of love, hate, tolerance and indifference.” His description of the township of Kaikoura is perfect: “To me it’s always been a ragged little town; the sea scratching at its feet and a mountain leaning over its shoulder.”
Mahon is also adept at bringing to life many of the characters that pepper his life. This of his friend Arthur:
Arthur came striding down the boulevard with his familiar limp, hands in the deep pockets of an unbuckled coat, the auburn leaves swirling around his heels, looking as always like a spy that has tumbled out of the grey pages of a discarded paperback.
And it is the stains on another craftsman’s hands that the observant Mahon notices:
He was a meticulous man, but this was the stain of his craft, of his life. One day I called in, he was having morning tea. We sat down together. I knew something was wrong and yet I couldn’t see it. Not until I noticed his hands. They were clean. A few months later he was dead.
As well as bringing to life the passing parade of people in his life, Mahon attempts to draw us into one particular relationship. He frames the central story of the making of the horse as a letter to a friend, Tim. Throughout the book Mahon looks back on his relationship with his friend, trying to figure out just why the friendship withered, and why his friend turned his back on his own creativity: “In you this thing lives but like a hooded falcon. As for me, I would rather go blind and set the bird free.” Mahon’s decision to incorporate this letter was perhaps in part a homage to his father, Justice Peter Mahon, who published Dear Sam, a collection of letters to his family. But in The Year of the Horse, the asides to Sam’s friend sit wanly beside the sizzling excitement of the forging of the horse.
The reader needs more detail of the complexities of Sam Mahon’s life – and his friend Tim’s – to make sense of reminiscences such as “You were wounded when I met you, wounded in love and faith and you limped, wearing your bandages like medals.” There are glimpses of the depth of the relationship but just what broke it apart is never really clear. Mahon drops in gnomic remarks such as: “After ‘The Fall’, you took sides with the enemy. You couldn’t call it that. Not ‘the enemy’. Probably Conscience or Integrity.” These tantalise but don’t satisfy our curiosity. In the end, the information remains too private, too intimate between the friends for the reader to gain much from the addresses to Tim. In the latter part of the book, as the excitement of the making of the horse builds, the intrusions of the letter fade away. It could easily have been excised altogether.
On a more prosaic but constantly annoying note, there is the decision to identify spoken language with a dash at the start of the line. The use of quotation marks would have made the many sections of spoken language much, much easier to read. Also some simple explanations when introducing the more technical terms of Mahon’s art would have helped the lay reader. I’m still not really sure what “ludo” and “wool-fadges” or “MIG” are. And to help the book expand beyond its New Zealand audience would require explaining just who Kim Hill and John Parker are and just what OSH stands for.
Mahon’s struggle with the Southern Man ends at Dunedin Airport where the horse and rider have been placed. His epitaph for the year-long process is the overheard opinion of an airport waitress: “S’alright.”
Kim Griggs is currently writing an account of her 2001 trip to Antarctica to be published by Random House.