The Horse Dancer by Jojo Moyes

Anyone who is a regular visitor to and reader of my blog will know that I have a liking of Jojo Moyes’ books. I like the stories, I like the characters, I like the usually happy and satisfying endings – in fact, there is not much that I don’t like about them really.

In my bid to read her back catalogue, I had put a hold on most of them at the library and a steady trickle of her titles have been picked up by me, The Horse Dancer being the latest one to arrive. It’s taken a long time to get here, a testament to Moyes’ popularity as an author.

The Horse Dancer tells the story of Sarah, a fourteen year old girl with a passion for horse riding which stems from her grandfather, Henri Lachapelle, a former pupil at Le Cadre Noir, a prestigious academy for horsemanship in Saumur, France.

The book starts with Henri meeting his future wife Florence, an English girl who saw him perform and whose presence in the crowd captivated Henri. This is told as a flashback and shows how Henri is in disgrace at Le Cadre Noir for fighting with another horseman, someone who was insulting of Florence and wanted to humiliate Henri infront of everyone out of jealousy and spite.

The action then moves to the present day where Henri is now an old man and has a granddaughter called Sarah who also shares his passion for and his prowess with horses. They inhabit a small flat in London and house Baucher, known as Boo in an urban stableyard run by Cowboy John, an American ex-pat who followed a woman to England but never left. Sarah and Henri, her “Papa” visit and train at the stableyard until Papa suffers a debilitating stroke and Sarah’s world is thrown into confusion.

When she meets Natasha by chance, and is introduced to Natasha’s soon-to-be ex-husband, Mac, she finds herself taken in by a stranger’s kindness and eventually, ends up being cared for by the couple, who agree to temporarily foster her while her grandfather recovers.

Prior to this though, Sarah has been passed from foster family to foster family who have been concerned about her inability to keep to their schedule for her and her absences from school, these obviously having been caused by having to cross London to ensure that Boo is well-cared for.

When Cowboy John hints at retiring and sells the stableyard to a less wholesome character called Maltese Sal, Sarah is struggling to find the means to pay the rent for Boo. Whilst Cowboy John is a friend who makes allowances, Maltese Sal is someone far more sinister and unyielding and it would not be beyond him to take advantage of this situation and the fears of a young girl.

Mac and Natasha know nothing about her horse nor her financial worries as Sarah tells them nothing about Boo and with no money of her own for his upkeep and care, Sarah is in a precarious situation. Faced with losing her horse and her grandfather, the two things about which she cares the most deeply and the dual centres of her world, Sarah tries to manage on her own until she is forced to act, and aims to fulfil the dream that her grandfather always had for her – to join Le Cadre Noir.

Natasha and Mac are on the verge of divorce when Sarah comes into their lives. They are trying to sell the house that they jointly own to settle the finances and as a result of this, Mac, a photographer, moves back in with Natasha, insisting that he needs somewhere to stay while he has work in London and as he owns half of the house, it should be okay to stay there.

Obviously, this situation is going to come with all sorts of tensions, never mind throwing a moody teenager into the mix.

Natasha has a boyfriend, Conor, a partner from the law firm she works for and seems to be settling into a new life. She rents a cottage in the Kent countryside, a rural retreat which she escapes to when Mac is there at the weekends. She is ambitious and works in advocacy for disadvantaged and refugee children and is likely to make partner if her work ethic and court results continue. But can she continue to put work first, maintain amicable relations with her soon-to-be ex and parent a wilful troubled teenager at the same time?

I thoroughly enjoy Jojo Moyes’ books and this was no exception. Her easy storytelling ability makes them an easy, accessible read and there is usually some sort of romantic complication, in this case, unresolved issues between Natasha and Mac, that make for moistened eyes at some point.

Her characters are always well realised and whilst some of the incidences in the book stretch belief a little, that, in my opinion, is what fiction is all about. I mean, it may be set in the real world but it doesn’t have to be a true reflection of it, does it?

Sarah is a strong teenage character who like most teenagers is reticent in sharing their feelings or asking for help. What is interesting in this book is that Natasha’s behaviour mirrors Sarah’s as she is closed and defensive too, and this very much hinders her ability to open up to Mac. They both have a lot to learn from each other and I liked this aspect. Also, the tension between Natasha and Mac and the fact that they are on the verge of divorce, even though it is clear that they still love each other is the stuff of great romantic fiction, keeping you hoping and guessing until the very last.

What I really liked about this book was the references to Xenophon, an Ancient Greek philosopher, commentator and historian, who I knew about from my Classical Studies A level. What I didn’t know was that he had written a book about horsemanship which is used by Henri as a sort of bible for training horses. Moyes uses quotes from the book to head up each chapter and I have to say that my curiosity was piqued about how something so old, probably 500BC, was still venerated today. Fascinating, those Greeks. I might have to read this.

So, does it all end well? Moyes is pretty good at concluding with satisfying endings for the most part, loose ends tied up and issues resolved, even if this is for the worst.

But what is true is that Jojo Moyes’ books continue to entertain and to date, I have never read a bad one.

Parts of this review were previously published on Reedsy Discovery.

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