1984, in a small town in the east of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, Karolína is growing up. Her mother has too many boyfriends and her forceful but caring grandmother carries a knife. In an attempt to escape her hard and monotonous life, Karolína joins a riding school at the edge of town. There she befriends Romana, a girl with one leg shorter than the other, and Matilda, a rider and trainer who helps the girls overcome their physical limitations. Together they form a successful trick riding team and soon the small town doesn’t seem so small anymore for Karolína.
The blurb on my copy of The Equestrienne calls it a novel, but at 80 pages I’d say it’s more of a novella. Either way, The Equestrienne is a short, kind of bittersweet coming of age story. I always find it difficult to talk about such short books that are focussed on a short period of time. It spans about sixteen years as that’s roughly the age Karolína is when the story ends, but a lot of her childhood is glossed over and it’s when she’s around twelve and discovers the stables – along with a teenage boy called Arpi – that she starts to come into her own. At the stables Karolína makes a friend for the first time. And with Arpi she discovers cigarettes and music like Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones.
Change is a big element to The Equestrienne and Karolína’s life. Naturally, she’s growing up and maturing, having her first period has a big impact on her, but there’s the political changes happening in the background as the Soviet Union begins to dissolve. There’s a lot of moments of hope because of these changes, but equally there’s disappointment as they go from one dictatorship to another – capitalism.
The women in The Equestrienne are all fleshed out and interesting, which is a feat considering how short it is, and the only named male character is Arpi. All the other men are pushed to the background or become a threat to Karolína’s happiness or safety. The relationships between the different female characters are strong too. Karolína’s grandmother makes a huge impact on her life as she’s a force to be reckoned with and while to begin with Karolína often doesn’t understand or like her mother and her choices, as she matures she see’s the everyday strains she’s under. Then Matilda and Romana each give Karolína confidence and companionship in a time when she felt so alone.
The Equestrienne is a short but effective story that’s sad and sweet. It’s a universal coming of age story, but by having it set in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic means you can learn more about that culture and history and how things like the economy affected its people. 4/5.