The Horse Dancer
By Jojo Moyes
Penguin. 444 pp. $16.
Reading The Horse Dancer, I had to keep reminding myself I was not, in fact, reading Dickens. There's the seedy section of East London. There are stark differences between the gilded lives of the wealthy and the turbulent lives of the poor. Most of all, there is Sarah, the resilient, quick-thinking orphan who outmaneuvers adults so deftly it's sometimes hard to believe she is only 14.
Sarah's enduring passion is a horse named Boo. This reader had to suspend disbelief to accept that Sarah's poor grandfather could get a piece of the finest horseflesh in the world from France to a stable a stone's throw from a housing project. And that this elderly man could train the girl-horse duo to perform complex movements adults spend their entire lives perfecting.
But that's the magic of The Horse Dancer: Characters are thrown into situations as surprising as they are compelling. Moyes writes so masterfully of the communion between horse and rider that she manages to make Le Cadre Noir, the exclusive French riding school, a realistic goal for Sarah.
Early in the novel, when Sarah's grandfather has a stroke, in step Mac and Natasha, in the throes of a long divorce. Although not entirely capable of saving the girl from her desperate situation, they are willing to try. And so we jump between the upwardly mobile world of Natasha and Mac, who own a house in a quickly gentrifying neighborhood, and the seedy world of Maltese Sal, who conducts illegal harness-racing when he's not terrorizing children.
The characters of the stables come close but do not veer wholly into caricature. Cowboy John, who has a heart of gold, along with a marijuana habit, is as believable and compelling as Ralph, the 12-year-old, cigarette-smoking sidekick of Maltese Sal.
Moyes writes movingly of how easy it is for a child to be damaged by well-meaning adults, and we see how the same family can swing from desperation to domestic bliss. The trick, Moyes suggests, is to trust one another. Like Dickens, she moves easily among several story lines, toggling between past and present, urban and rural, domestic and professional, with ease and confidence. She writes convincingly of how money determines destiny and also of what happens when tragedy befalls good, or at least average, people. In this case, the very worst brings out the very best, but not in a sentimental way. Her vision of people lifted from despair by nothing more than love (and a little money) is nothing if not poignant.
Anton DiSclafani is the author, most recently, of "The After Party." This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.