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On Swift Horses: Secrets and lies in 1950s California and Mexico

Book review: Shannon Pufahl’s debut is intimate, challenging and geographically immersive

On Swift Horses
On Swift Horses
Author: Shannon Pufahl
ISBN-13: 9780008293963
Publisher: 4th Estate
Guideline Price: £12.99

Shannon Pufahl’s debut novel is a taut work reminiscent of Eleanor Catton’s Booker winner The Luminaries and stylistically comparable to the best of Steinbeck.

Set in 1950s California and Mexico, the story is led by the narratives of Muriel and Julius, who are both hiding heavy secrets behind gambling and untruths.

Newly married Muriel is struggling to connect with her husband Lee. Their honeymoon period is enjoyed by him alone, oblivious to her unhappiness. Lee is recently back from the war in the Pacific and is content to settle into a life of domesticity and modest gains. While Lee basks in his perceived glow of their matrimonial bliss, Muriel drifts alongside, floating like a bystander.

Confronted with the confusion of her own womanhood and identity in the aftermath of her mother’s sudden death, Muriel struggles to find herself. A free-spirited widow, her mother brought men home unashamedly, challenging Muriel to construct her own moral baseline in a feminist vein, ahead of the time. The marriage to Lee comes in the wake of the bereavement, leaving Muriel an emotionally aloof vagabond, living on the west coast, in a state full of promise, but with little delivery. She takes up betting on horses, having learned the tricks of the trade from men she serves as a waitress.


Invisible to her customers, Muriel listens in on their conversations and makes notes of their tips. She develops a talent for picking a winner and behind various disguises, begins to visit the racetrack to see the horses run. The horses reflect Muriel’s hidden desire to break free and her wins fill the void she harbours, as the distance between her and Lee grows.


Julius, brother to Lee, has also recently returned from the Pacific, though his discharge is shadowed with a story of misconduct, that we later realise was an intimacy with another officer. Julius acts as a foil and a mirror to Muriel. While she wishes to be found out, he is exposed and pursues his passions freely. Julius occupies the card tables of Vegas and becomes a pit surveyor, watching for cheaters. While there, he meets Henry, also a pit surveyor and they begin a secret relationship.

Although Julius lives his life more in the open, he must continue to be careful and the reader follows him through experiences of park meet-ups and alleyway beatings. Julius experiences the tenderness of love through his relationship with Henry, a tenderness Muriel does not experience, until much later in the book.

Muriel’s deceit leads her down the path of a double life that begins to deepen into a bigger secret. As both characters navigate their journeys, they each cross the same terrain of forbidden landscapes. The representation of repression and unease is reflected in the desert of Nevada, where Julius emerges from card tables at dawn to see “fists of fire reach up from the earth and soften into smoke”. The testing of nuclear bombs offers a reminder of threat, but also the accepted danger of what is close.

Rich descriptions

Pufahl has a talent for intricacy. Her characters are complex and mysterious. Their interactions are dense with intelligence. Her dialogue is tight and finessed and reads like a third or fourth book. The richness of her descriptions of place plunge the reader into the landscape she has chosen: “The mornings in San Diego have a particular tang, the ocean air sweetened by the drift of tanker fumes.”/ “The rain has let off and the town smells of offing and cooked meat and burned lavender.”

The writing style demands the attention of the reader, it is relentlessly multi-layered with metaphor. The trust of the reader is slightly forgotten towards the end of the novel, when Muriel’s story unravels with what feels like an off-kilter chapter that speaks in the voice of an omnipotent rather than of the character. Julius’s conclusion would have sufficed as an ending to Muriel’s story, it remains true to the subtlety of the narrative.

References are made throughout the book to holiness. The central characters have been raised Christian, by parents who either succumbed negatively to their faith, or who lived in conflict with its restriction. The truth of love comes through as the saving grace, whether unrequited, hidden or immoral. As Julius steps off a boat toward the end of the book, he reflects on a biblical passage: “In Isaiah the holy land is the place where heaven and earth touch. Perhaps that means that in every other place there is division, distance, an unnamed thing holding heaven from earth… Isaiah did not give this thing a name, but Julius suspects it is tenuous, like the fine agony of two bodies pressed together, like one man’s hand touching another. That the space between heaven and earth is the touch those two hands make.”

Pufahl’s debut is deft and will please readers looking for something challenging, intimate and geographically immersive.