The Horse of Selene by Juanita Casey: Strange, mystical and utterly hypnotic

Review: Reissue of a forgotten novel from 1971 that’s imperfect but extraordinary

The Horse of Selene
Author: Juanita Casey
ISBN-13: 9781915290007
Publisher: Tramp Press
Guideline Price: €14.99

The Recovered Voices series is an initiative by publisher Tramp Press to showcase “the work of forgotten, overlooked and marginalised writers”. The Horse of Selene, the 1971 debut novel by Juanita Casey, is the latest to be rescued from obscurity as part of this series.

The Horse of Selene is by no means a perfect novel, but it is an extraordinary one. Set on an island off the west coast of Ireland, it tells of devoutly Catholic farmer Micael, who finds himself seduced by a group of free-spirited itinerants. Among these itinerants is the “dark tide”, Selene, a gifted horse whisperer, who is likewise seduced by a band of free-roaming horses. Her attempts to tame a wild stallion, and her attempts to liberate Micael from his chaste ways, drive the story.

In fact, the book has many threads and viewpoints, to such an extent it can be hard to get a grip on the main one. But it is held taut by binary pairs – ideas surrounding the male and the female, the settled and the nomadic, the faithful and the agnostic, the free and the confined, tug at each other throughout. In part, the book is an examination of power, whether exerted by natural entities – humans, horses, landscape – or institutions – the church, the patriarchy, even communism and monarchy. Mary M. Burke accurately asserts in her afterword, that the book is a “self-consciously ‘female’ and ‘Traveller’ novel that privileges the nomadic over the conventional and the free-spirited woman over the settled man”.

This afterword also helps to place the book in the context of its author’s life. Like Selene, Casey was raised by adoptive parents and horse mad. Her birth parents were Irish Traveller and English Romany, and her adoptive uncle had ties to the circus industry. In the 1960s and 1970s she was married to an Irishman and lived a bohemian life here.

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This disparate heritage and experience feeds into the text, but it is the poetical force of the language that appeals most. The Horse of Selene is at once irreverently comic, philosophical and lyrical. Reading it is like returning to some ancient self, one which is indivisible from landscape; “the sea wind in the thickets of your belly; birdsong in the thickets of your mind”. It lays out an ecological mysticism of sorts, and though it is loose and roving, its effect is utterly hypnotic.

Niamh Donnelly

Niamh Donnelly, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and critic