A Horse at Night by Amina Cain  

Last year I read and very much enjoyed Amina Cain’s Indelicacy, a subtle, beautifully-written novella of a woman’s desire for the freedom to write. I especially liked how Cain explored her protagonist’s relationship with art and creativity, both internally and externally. There are resonances between Indelicacy and Cain’s latest book A Horse at Night: On Writing, which could be described as a meditation on reading, writing and various aspects of the author’s life, particularly those which feed into her creative process.

Structurally, A Horse at Night is a collection of short, essayistic pieces covering Cain’s observations and reflections, a kind of journal or notebook touching on topics as wide-ranging as female friendship, solitude, darkness, authenticity, coyotes, cats and narrative as landscape painting. There are also numerous mentions of specific books that intrigue or inspire Cain in certain ways, prompting responses that feel significant to her own approach to writing. For instance, she discusses her interest in the relationship between character and setting, citing Orhan Pamuk’s views on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as being influential. In The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist, Pamuk argues that Anna is a character ‘formed by her surroundings’, partly because Tolstoy draws her as an inherent part of a striking landscape (not detached from it). It’s an idea that interests Cain, feeding into the approach she adopts with her own fiction.

Even though I’m a writer, it’s not always a language I’m drawn to first. When I start writing a new story, I often begin with setting. Before plot, before dialogue, before anything else, I begin to see where a story will take place, and then I hear the narrative voice, which means that character is not far behind. (p. 7)

For Cain, character and landscape are intimately entwined, creating a co-dependency of sorts. In essence, a character can only fully exist in the specific setting portrayed – if the context were to be altered, the character would also change (to a certain extent, at least).

Cain goes on to discuss ideas such as projection and suggestion in her writing, occasionally hinting at something that isn’t there or explicitly stated. We get the sense that Cain thinks deeply about the balance between explicitly conveying information and keeping something back, allowing readers to intuit certain elements for themselves. She likes to use these effects to create subtle layers in her fiction – sometimes to evoke a feeling, sometimes to convey ‘the sense of another actuality, a glimpse of a shadow world’.

In fiction, I like description very much, but not just any kind of description, as sometimes it can be too utilitarian to be interesting, to heighten something, to do more than simply show the reader what they should see in their mind as they read. The best kinds of description evoke feeling, and not just emotional feeling, but a sense of something else, a different kind of knowing. (pp. 117–118) 

As a writer, I feel I am always negotiating that: when to give something explicitly to the reader and when to hold back, or when to give just a little of it so that it can be sensed rather than simply seen. There is great value in what can be sensed. And in a way, one of the things that allows fiction its sense of possibility and freedom is this choice of what to make visible. (p. 78)

For instance, which elements should be communicated directly and which could be suggested or implied? What can remain unsaid, allowing the reader to sense certain aspects? How might certain details be used to illuminate the narrative, to make it memorable or distinctive without weighing it down? These are some of the questions Cain ponders while writing. She also tends to favour narrative voice and interiority over conflict and tension, which might be one of the reasons why I’m drawn to her work.

In addition, there are numerous references to specific books that have made strong impressions on Cain over the years, various touchstones or sources of inspiration she likes to return to again and again. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s marvellous novel Lolly Willowes features heavily here, as do Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter and Marguerite Duras’ The Ravishing of Lol Stein. I love what she says about Lolly Willowes and her epiphany in the ‘half florist and half greengrocer’, amidst the flowers, vegetables and bottled fruit. It’s a realisation that gives Lolly the impetus to move elsewhere, allowing her to break free from the constraints of her conventional family. In the wilds of Great Mop, Lolly can become her true self, no longer required to play a role she was never suited to adopt.

Annie Ernaux also warrants a mention here – I have to agree that Ernaux does obsession very well, based on my experience of Simple Passion (tr. Tanya Leslie). Helpfully, A Horse at Night comes with a list of works cited by Cain, a veritable treasure trove of further reading for the curious to explore.

I recently read, and loved, Annie Ernaux’s The Possession. But what did I love, exactly? Its urgency, I suppose. The way the narrator is taken over by something, her obsessive jealousy over her ex-lover’s new live-in girlfriend. Ernaux does obsession and jealousy very well: crude, angry, a little violent. Sometimes it feels as though the novella’s sentences are a series of hits or punches. (p. 13)

Cain writes beautifully about a range of other subjects, such as the pleasure of spending time alone or quiet time in the company of her partner – two individuals doing their own thing while still being together. Darkness is another area of interest – more specifically, how it can be used in writing, art or films to create certain effects through the relationship between darkness and light. Tanizaki’s classic text In Praise of Shadows is a key touchstone here, a book that specifically explores the pleasures and beauty of darkness. Cain’s comments also made me think of a luminous scene from Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s award-winning film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, where a girl serves tea to a group of men during a night-time search. The scene is lit by lamplight, giving it a wonderful luminosity all of its own.

Cain also touches on more personal topics such as freedom, vulnerability and authenticity. Once again, she illuminates some of these reflections through their representations in literature without ever shying away from sharing her own feelings. Consequently, this deepens the sense of intimacy and openness in the book.

My loss of authenticity is related to change, to how, as I’ve gotten older, I seem to have become a different person. In a way I have become strange to myself, and so how I am and feel around others has also been destabilised. I have more fears than I had when I was younger; I am more rigid; and there has been a loss too of the freedom I once felt, when the world seemed entirely open, and utterly beautiful. (p. 56)

So, to summarise, A Horse at Night is a thoughtful, thoroughly engaging meditation on various aspects of reading, writing, art, life and the creative process – a soothing book to keep by your bedside to dip into at night.

28 thoughts on “A Horse at Night by Amina Cain  

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      A pleasure! It’s very much your kind of thing, Gert. Full of thoughtful reflections on various aspects of life. I get the impression that Cain thinks deeply about these things, and it’s interesting to see how they feed into her approach to writing and constructing stories.

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Really lovely review Jacqui, and the book sounds fascinating – very much up my street, as I love that kind of essayistic writing, especially if it provides a list of other titles to be explored. Will definitely look out for it! :D

  2. Laurie Graves

    Your review of A Horse at Night really made me think about writing, especially the role of place and how that should bring about an emotional response. Wonderful lesson, one that all writers should consider. This book will definitely be going on my TBR list.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I found that aspect fascinating too, the importance of the setting and context when creating a character…It’s a really lovely book, a good one for dipping into in short bursts as each section is fairly quick to read.

  3. mallikabooks15

    That is indeed quite a range of topics, and they all sound wonderfully dealt with. From those you describe, I particularly like the sound of the pieces on light/darkness and on the balance between things said/unsaid.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I loved those elements too, especially the balance between darkness and light. It was also a timely reminder to pick up a copy of In Praise of Shadows – it’s been on my whishlist for ages!

  4. heavenali

    Cain’s attitude to the writing of character and landscape definitely sound like the kind of writing I would like. A thoroughly wide ranging collection of pieces here by the sounds of it too.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it made me think about some of the Irish writers I love (e.g. Claire Keegan and William Trevor) and how important the setting seems to be in helping to shape their characters.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, that’s great to hear! She’s an excellent writer with an ability to roam from one topic to another, a little like Elizabeth Hardwick in Sleepless Nights.

  5. 1streading

    I have almost bought this on a number of occasions, drawn by the number of authors / books she discusses whom I also love – Lolly Willowes, Elena Ferrante, Duras, Ernaux. I also recommended Indelicacy for book club but it wasn’t chosen (to be fair, we went with O Caledonia instead).

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, how interesting! I’m curious to hear everyone’s thoughts on O Caledonia – do let me know. As for Amina Cain, I definitely think she’s worth trying, especially given your fondness for the writers mentioned above!

  6. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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