Synopsis from Goodreads: In the mid-1950s, America was flush with prosperity and saw an unbroken line of progress clear to the horizon, while the West was still very much wild. In this ambitious, incandescent debut, Malcolm Brooks animates that time and untamed landscape, in a tale of the modern and the ancient, of love and fate, and of heritage threatened by progress.
Catherine Lemay is a young archaeologist on her way to Montana, with a huge task before her—a canyon “as deep as the devil’s own appetites.” Working ahead of a major dam project, she has one summer to prove nothing of historical value will be lost in the flood. From the moment she arrives, nothing is familiar—the vastness of the canyon itself mocks the contained, artifact-rich digs in post-Blitz London where she cut her teeth. And then there’s John H, a former mustanger and veteran of the U.S. Army’s last mounted cavalry campaign, living a fugitive life in the canyon. John H inspires Catherine to see beauty in the stark landscape, and her heart opens to more than just the vanished past. Painted Horses sends a dauntless young woman on a heroic quest, sings a love song to the horseman’s vanishing way of life, and reminds us that love and ambition, tradition and the future, often make strange bedfellows. It establishes Malcolm Brooks as an extraordinary new talent.
Stats for my copy: Hardback, published by Grove Press, 214.
How acquired: Won in a Goodreads giveaway.
First line: London, even the smell of it.
My thoughts: So right off the bat I was confused and disoriented. London? Oh, so Catherine is English, but will be traveling to Montana. Wait, what's going on here?
After the first few pages, I began to get my bearings and settle into the story. Sort of. We meet Catherine, age 23, who went to London to study the piano because it was expected of her, but got caught up in the excitement of a local excavation that fueled her love of architecture, and drove her to change her field of study. She's later offered a job in Montana, where a dam is being planned, surveying the canyon for signs of anything of historical significance. Her path crosses a couple of times with that of John H., who is a like a horse whisperer.
The plot bounces around quite a bit, back and forth from Catherine's time in London to the present day exploring the canyon with her requisite but uncooperative guide, Jack Allen, with here and there the various points in John's life that made him the man he is today. At times it was slow going, but at times it was a bit mesmerizing. I wasn't sure at first if Jack was a bad guy or an OK guy. Catherine also hires a local Native American girl, Miriam, who is even younger than Catherine, to assist her, and Miriam was an interesting character, though I was a little disappointed with her in the end. And it took way too long before Catherine's and John's stories finally merged and they actually began interacting with each other.
And then, around the last fifty pages, the action amped up and I became absolutely riveted and couldn't turn the pages fast enough.
One of the reasons I wanted to read this book was because the blurb I read described it as being “reminiscent of Larry McMurtry”. I wouldn't quite go that far, but the passages about John and horses do come a bit close.