Category Archives: Scanlan Kathryn

Kick the Latch by Kathryn Scanlan

The publishing arm of Daunt Books has been on a winning streak recently, with a run of top-flight reissues/releases from critically-acclaimed writers such as Natalia Ginzburg, Nona Fernández, Celia Dale and Elisa Shua Dusapin. Now I can add Kathryn Scanlan to that list, courtesy of her remarkably powerful book, Kick the Latch, recently published in this beautifully-produced edition.

Described as a work of fiction, Kick the Latch is based on a series of interviews Scanlan conducted with an American horse trainer named Sonia between 2018 and 2021. As such, the novella thrums with a strong sense of authenticity, alive with the sights and sounds of the racetrack – a male-dominated world where resilience and determination are necessary for survival. Through a series of short vignettes (mostly around a page in length), Scanlan skilfully builds up a composite picture of Sonia’s life from childhood to middle age – spare in terms of prose style but rich in visual imagery.

Sonia is raised in a poor neighbourhood in Iowa’s Dixon City, where money is tight and luxuries are few and far between. From an early age, she develops an interest in horses, learning to ride on Rowdy, a small mustang she finds at a local stable.

If I was in a good mood, Rowdy might test me. If I was in a hurry, he wouldn’t let me catch him. He taught me trust. He taught me not to trust too much. I learned to be a little leery. (p. 22)

The novella follows Sonia as she learns the ropes of horse training, her teenage summers spent working as a trainer in Denton in return for room and board. By eighteen, she’s working the racetracks full time, travelling the circuit and sleeping wherever she can – typically in a trackside stall, a truck or a cheap motel.

It’s a gruelling life, especially at the bottom-tier racetracks – a rootless existence, travelling from one place to another, working sixteen-hour days for little financial gain. Nevertheless, Sonia finds it rewarding in many other ways. She clearly has a genuine affinity for the horses, caring as best she can for their temperaments and needs. The best trainers work with their horses, not against them, and Sonia really seems to understand this, flexing her approach to what the horse wants to do. Moreover, Scanlan is particularly strong at conveying the routines and rituals of horse training, the day-to-day tasks that Sonia carries out with care and dedication. In effect, she is the horses’ caregiver, tuning in to their emotions alongside their physical needs.

You have your bandages laundered, rolled up, ready. You have your sheet cotton and your hoof packing. You groom them and put on leg liniments, run bandages. You might freeze their legs with ice or put them in a turbulator with epsom salts. They love to stand with the warm whirlpool water up past their knees. If their shoulders are stiff, you rub salve on and wrap them in plastic and pin a wool blanket around their neck. Pretty soon the sweat start dripping. It loosens them up, makes them feel good. (p. 70–71)

One of the things Scanlan does so brilliantly here is to preserve Sonia’s distinctive tone of voice, recounting the trainer’s experiences in a direct, matter-of-fact way. And yet there is genuine humanity and compassion here too, qualities that shine through in the dedication Sonia applies to her work. In some respects, Sonia’s narrative voice reminds me a little of Tove Ditlevsen’s, as conveyed in the equally remarkable Copenhagen Trilogy – a straightforward, unadorned delivery that feels all the more potent as a result. Like Ditlevsen, Sonia has her own traumatic experiences to deal with. At seventeen, she is raped at gunpoint by a man who breaks into her trailer, a jockey she knows from her work at the tracks. And yet, as with other ordeals and hardships, Sonia deals with this incident stoically, taking measures to protect herself as best she can.

The guy sobered up, I knew him, I seen him every day, I knew exactly who it was—it was bad, but anyway, I survived. I cut my hair real short after that. (p. 42)

Working the racetracks becomes all-consuming for Sonia; it’s not just a job but a way of life, leaving little room for friends, family and relationships outside the racetrack community. Nevertheless, despite professional rivalries and competitiveness between trainers (and between jockeys), the racetrackers are a kind of family, helping and supporting their fellow members in times of need. For instance, when Sonia is severely injured by a horse (accidents are not uncommon in the world!), a fellow trainer and his wife step in, offering her a place to recuperate despite their previous disagreements.

For years and years you’re around nobody but racetrack people. You don’t have time for family. Your romantic relationships are short-lived because a rolling stone catches no moss. It’s hard, it’s grueling, it’s up and down. I had a lot of injuries. I could’ve been paralyzed real easy. The doctors stressed that to me—it wouldn’t take much. (p. 137)

Unsurprisingly, there are flashes of brutality lurking amidst the buzz of this strangely compelling world. Sonia doesn’t hold back on describing the disreputable tactics some (less ethical) trainers employ to pump up their horses immediately before a race. (If you’re sensitive to descriptions of animal cruelty, this might not be a book for you.) Nevertheless, Sonia doesn’t condone these dubious practices herself; rather, she is simply relaying the reality of the world around her, highlighting the cruelty for what it clearly is.

It feels as if Scanlan has compressed a whole life within the pages of this slim book – the sense of economy and precision is remarkable, calling to mind Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams, which captures the life of a railroad construction worker in the early 20th century. There is also something of Chloé Zhao’s films here, particularly The Rider, both in subject matter and in style. Yet, irrespective of these comparisons, Scanlan has crafted something extraordinary with this book – the composite portrait of a woman’s life, illuminated with grace, stoicism, openness and humanity. I found it utterly compelling – a window into a world I knew nothing about.

Kick the Latch is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. This is my second review for Karen and Lizzie’s #ReadIndies event, more details here.