I have to come clean – I requested this book because I was under the impression that it was a fantasy adventure, due to the title. For once, my trick of not reading the blurb tripped me up…
The Mongol Derby is the world’s toughest horse race. An outrageous feat of endurance across the vast Mongolian plains once traversed by the army of Genghis Khan, the Derby sees competitors ride 25 horses across 1000km, and it’s rare that more than half of the riders make it to the finish line. In 2013 Lara Prior-Palmer – nineteen, wildly underprepared and in search of the great unknown – decided to enter the race. Finding on the wild Mongolian steppe strength and self-knowledge she didn’t know she possessed, even whilst caught in biblical storms and lost in the mountains, Lara tore through the field with her motley crew of horses. She didn’t just complete the race: in one of the Derby’s most unexpected results, she won, becoming the youngest-ever competitor to conquer the course.
Lara makes an intriguing protagonist – in this painfully honest memoir of a tricky time in her life when she signed up for this most testing adventure on a fairly random whim, I get a sense of a very strong determined personality who is a work-in-progress. I liked the messiness of the characterisation. She is clearly someone not comfortable in her own skin – literally, as it happens. This gawky nineteen-year-old has been suffering with chronic stomach pains that no one has been able to successfully diagnose – and as the race wore on and many of the other competitors dropped away, it did occur to me that the reason why she managed to stick it out when so many others couldn’t, is simply that she’s used to being in constant physical discomfort and pain.
I say ‘simply’, but of course real life isn’t that simple. This book isn’t just about Lara’s gritted determination to complete – and ultimately win – a particularly gruelling horse race, it’s also about her take on the stunning scenery, the people in her life – and how comfortable she feels within herself. It’s striking that when in amongst other people, what falls out of her mouth is often crass and/or simply embarrassing. She mentions near the start of the book that she hasn’t many filters and at school she was in the habit of coming out with whatever was floating through her head at the time.
There’s a sense of her not really fitting in – not at home, or in her daily life and certainly not at the start of the race. By the end, however, it’s a different matter. The vets and race organisers begin to look upon her as a contender and there’s an implicit sense that there’s growing respect for her. Not that she mentions it – I’m not sure even now that she’s aware of how awed they were at her toughness and horsemanship. It’s striking that her main competitor pushed her horses really hard throughout, which eventually cost her the race. Mostly, Lara didn’t.
I’m conscious that I’ve written a great deal about the protagonist and not a whole lot about the race – it’s partly because I don’t want to stray into Spoiler territory, but also because I love the fact that while one thing is going on – the race – Lara is also busy growing up…
Her descriptions of her various horses, the varying weather and stunning scenery, along with her immediate reaction to it is masterfully done. This book pulled me in and held me throughout – I found it a fascinating, layered read that told me about so much more than a very challenging horse race. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys reading about true adventures.