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Kick the Latch by Kathryn Scanlan: an extraordinary story, radically compressed

The fascinating life of a horse trainer is captured in a series of stylised vignettes

Kick the Latch
Author: Kathryn Scanlan
ISBN-13: 978-1914198250
Publisher: Daunt Books
Guideline Price: £9.99

The American writer Kathryn Scanlan has won critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic for her impressive distillation of real life stories into complex, intricate fiction. Her debut novel, Aug 9 – Fog (2019), was a literary adaptation of a found diary. She followed this with an experimental collection, The Dominant Animal, comprised of 40 micro stories that offered an unsettling and original tableaux of ordinary lives.

In her new novel, Kick the Latch, Scanlan continues to experiment with form, eschewing the traditional in favour of brief, titled sections, a series of stylised vignettes that build to one extraordinary story. This kind of radical compression demands a high level of artistry, and Scanlan is more than up to the task. She’s helped on her way by her chosen subject, a real-life horse trainer named Sonia, whose transcribed interviews are the foundations of the book.

Kick the Latch is a fictionalised retelling of Sonia’s story, though to deem it such downplays Scanlan’s ingenuity, the way she is able to disappear from the story herself and let the voice of the protagonist take the reins, which is seen right from the Salinger-esque opening: “I was born October 1, 1962. I was born in Dixon City, Iowa. I was born with a dislocated hip. The doctor said I’d never walk. My mom said, Oh no, there’s got to be something. So they put me in a solid plaster from my chest down, with just a little spot for a diaper.”

Throughout this short book, Scanlan goes on to capture the arc of Sonia’s life at the racetrack, from her teenage job mucking out local stables, to the South Dakota track where she rises through the ranks to enter the wealthy world of Florida racing, and the unexpected anticlimax of reaching the Kentucky Derby. It’s a fascinating backdrop of long days, hard physical labour, injuries, intuition, pressures, tensions, the highs and lows of competition.


As with contemporaries Jenny Offill, Maggie Nelson or Yiyun Li, Scanlan’s skill is in the arrangement of these details, the focus on specific moments, the miniaturist at work in the style and structure of the anecdotes. Sonia’s story is told with remarkable economy and flair. There are stories within stories; the sections, sometimes only a line or paragraph, contain worlds: “For a few months I was renting a room at the El Rancho Motel for $211 a week, and on Thanksgiving the creep I lived with cooked a turkey in an electric roaster in the bathroom. He propped the roaster on the sink next to the high-voltage outlet. It was the moistest turkey I’ve ever eaten.”

The compression works to amplify Sonia’s life, rather than curtail it. Her idiosyncrasies and speech patterns are related verbatim, creating an intense intimacy of experience through stylised colloquialism, and the mixing of the first and second person voice: “I was seven the first time I seen a horse break down on the racetrack ... They liked me okay but I was still a girl trainer. Everything you do you’ve got to do twice as good.”

The dangers of horse racing are presented in grim detail: bulimic jockeys, animal injections for tired employees, people who end up with steel rods in their spines, people who die

Sonia eventually comes to earn the men’s respect through graft, her ability to get on with things – even of the traumatic sort – and because of her affinity with outsider horses, the ones cast aside by everyone else. Her reputation in South Dakota is sealed after she brings an injured horse, Dark Side, back from the brink. “The horse seemed to know I spared him,” she says simply, without ego. “Everyone had given up on him.”

The horses are so vividly drawn, they’re almost anthropomorphised: “Rowdy was a little mustang out of Green River, North Dakota – a paint, brown and white, just beautiful ... As soon as he thought you weren’t paying attention – bang! you’d be on the ground. He was nervous and quick. He’d spook. He was sensitive. It was his heritage.” The dangers of horse racing are presented in grim detail: bulimic jockeys, animal injections for tired employees, people who end up with steel rods in their spines, people who die.

The pace of Kick the Latch is exemplary. This is in part informed by Sonia’s character, her direct and unapologetic tone of voice, but it’s also due to Scanlan’s selection of material. Whole years and decades go by without the feeling that things are missing. What emerges is Sonia’s love of horse racing, her need to be part of the world, even as she has a clear sense of the impact on other aspects of her life. The nobility and integrity of her character are ultimately what shine through, like glittering nuggets carved out of a mine. Scanlan is an expert wielding the pick, chiselling through blocks of material to turn life into art.

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts