Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race
By Lara Prior-Palmer
New York, NY; Catapult, 2019
288 pages, $25, Hardcover
Reviewed by Megan McCarter
The Mongol Derby has won the name of the world’s longest and toughest horse race. Covering 1000 km of the Mongolian Steppe, riders are drawn from across the globe to compete in this ultimate trial of endurance. Against the face of floods, storms, unfamiliar landscapes, falls, and sickness, enter Lara Prior-Palmer in her memoir Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race as she tells the story of how she became the youngest person and first woman to ever win the Mongol Derby in 2013.
Written in first person, Prior-Palmer’s prose reads like a peek inside her beaten and water-stained Winnie-the-Pooh notebook that traveled with her across the steppe. Inside, we find snippets of poetry, letters home, observations of the greater world, laughter, self-reflection, and tattered sections of script torn from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the source of the memoir’s title. This gripping language opens a window for readers into Prior-Palmer’s life, from her family with her horse-avoidant father and at times distant mother, the banter of her older brothers, and the unceasing movement of her aunt, Lucinda Green, a world champion in the equestrian sport of eventing and an Olympic medalist.
From her quiet, though ever-moving landscape of home, readers are transported with Prior-Palmer to the Mongolian Steppe. In one of her early letters home, Prior-Palmer brings the majesty of power contained within the steppes into words, “Today, Ma, I have seen the earth thrusting storms around and pulling bones down to her core. The coldness has left me aching and broken, like eggshell.” This masterful language pulls the experience of racing across the steppes into reality through the evocation of metaphor and the gripping of emotion more than the drawn-out descriptions of landscape that are so common in other memoirs of this genre. Between these striking flares of reflection, Prior-Palmer finds balance in the humor and mundane of reality by drawing her audience back to earth. In this same early letter, she signs off, “Itching rules the night. I pray nobody makes off with my jodhpurs before I wake.”
Perhaps what is Prior-Palmer’s most masterful achievement is her way of drawing her audience so fully into her story. Hours whisk by when reading Rough Magic as readers are drawn into the world of the Mongol Derby. Each of the people Prior-Palmer meets are characterized in such a why that everyone feels rich with their own story to tell. She breathes new life into flat pictures, making the scene captured by so many photographers of the derby come to life. In fact, even these photographers unseen behind the camera become something new and exciting. From Alex with ABC filming his documentary of the race and constantly chasing after the competitors for a closeup or interview to Richard Dunwoody’s famed photos of the group captured in quiet reflection or friendly comradery, each artifact of the race suddenly blooms with new stories and depth. Even Prior-Palmer’s own denim vest she wore for the race comes to mean something more to readers than simply an article of clothing. This is to say nothing of the relationships that Prior-Palmer creates between her fellow riders and rivals, as well as the twenty-four horses that she rode through the race.
It would be remiss to say that this book is not about horses, being the story of a horse race, but this memoir covers much more. It is the story of animals, but also nature, family, culture, history, competition, the lingering ghosts of imperialism, and the ways that all of these elements combine to create the individual. With the vast landscape and isolation of the steppes, these questions all come to the surface and intertwine. “Every person I meet is lit by my impressions of those I used to know. Yes, we are pouring into each other, as time pours into itself.” Even in insolation, nothing stands alone. Whether it be with the horse she rides, the audience she addresses, the family she remembers, the riders and individuals she interacts with, or the people so distant to merely be watching her signal ping on the maps of the race online, Prior-Palmer draws attention to the fact that though she may be running the world’s loneliest horse race, she is always far from alone in her ties to the world.
Early into her memoir, Prior-Palmer observes, “It is a horse’s habit to pace about when she feels a storm approaching. Winding herself up seems to ready her for the coming saga.” This winding up sets the tone for Prior-Palmer’s own saga of self-discovery in which she opens the way to carry readers along with her on her journey. This exploration is indeed a storm, filled with its beauty, its danger, its determination, and its ability to wash the landscape anew and open readers eyes to what was right before them but that hadn’t realized before. Filled with questions of what it means to be a foreigner and wanderer, what it means to discover oneself, and what it takes to ride in the world’s loneliest horse race, Rough Magic opens its pages to the world behind the photographs and the glory.