A finely woven novel exploring grief, hope and friendship, Storm Horse by Nick Garlick moved me to tears, even though I started reading it with a great sense of wariness, my inner cynic poised to be proved right with the slightest hiccup in plot, writing or characterization.
Having recently lost his parents, a young boy can’t believe he’ll ever feel at ease with the relatives who have agreed to take responsibility for him. But all that changes when he makes friends with a horse. A growing sense of trust and (self) belief enables him to find a place where he’s happy to belong, even though in the process he comes face to face with some of his greatest fears, loss and sadness.
This page-turner, with dramatic, breath-taking scenes worthy of the vast gloomy shore skies under which it is set made me nervous before I turned the first page; Storm Horse is set on the Frisian islands off the north coast of the Netherlands and is partly inspired by a very emotive true life story about a lifeboat disaster that devastated an island community.
Surrounded by huge and exhilaratingly beautiful sandy beaches, the lifeboat on Ameland was traditionally launched by horses who pulled the boat over the sand and then into the tide, enabling launches where no pier existed. But in 1979 eight horses drowned during a lifeboat launch and in this small island community their terrible loss was felt deeply and powerfully and is still remembered with great sorrow, but also pride, for launching lifeboats with horses was something unique to this particular community, long after other Frisian islands had given up on this tradition.
As it happens I know Ameland and this story rather well (the photo above shows M and J visiting the grave and memorial to the eight horses back in 2012, whilst the photos below show a re-enactment I once saw of how the lifeboat used to be launched), and so when I found out about a novel set on the Frisian islands, centered on horses and lifeboat rescues I was both curious and anxious.
Starting a novel when you already have an emotional investment in it is a scary thing. What if it doesn’t live up to your hopes? What if you feel it betrays the beauty / the sorrow / the wonder you feel about certain events or places or times?
But I took the plunge and turned the first page and…
…Well here’s why I think you might enjoy this book as much as I did, even if you’ve never heard of the Frisian islands and have not one ounce of hope at stake when you come across it in your local bookshop or library:
This is no literal re-telling of the terrible, heart-breaking events of the 14th of August 1979; Garlick sets his story on an imaginary island (though Ameland is briefly mentioned), and yet all the details ring beautifully true. The challenges of island life are not shied away from, but read this moving, convincing, vivid novel and I think you may nevertheless fall in love.
Now… what will my lifeboat-mad, Dutch husband who spent every childhood summer on Ameland think of this book? Well, somehow I’m going to have to find the time to read it aloud to him and the girls as I now know I needn’t have worried: Storm Horse is a cracker.
Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book by the publisher.
I would expect to find this book in the part of the bookshop/library aimed at 8/9 – 12/13 year olds.