Lara Prior-Palmer was surfing the internet when she discovered the Mongol Derby: “a 1,000-kilometer race on twenty-five wild ponies…that mimicked Chinggis Khan’s postal system but seemed from afar more like a perfect hodgepodge of Snakes and Ladders and the Tour de France on unknown bicycles.” A year out of high school and straining for something lifelike to sink her teeth into, she’d been dreaming of going to Kyrgyszstan, anyway—“…long-maned ponies streaming over green steppes, space poured wide and free…”—and here was a way to get there. Despite having only a few weeks to secure finances, gather the necessary supplies and make travel plans, she impulsively clicked “apply.”
Prior-Palmer’s breathless debut, Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race, records her journey with equal parts wit and bravado, modesty and despair. From the very beginning we know that Palmer not only wins the grueling race but becomes “the youngest person and the first female ever to have done so.” The suspense then resides in the how, which is indeed a feat given Prior-Palmer’s backward sense of direction, her inability to read her GPS, her non-conformist ideas about practically everything, and her utter lack of preparation. (Feminine stereotypes all around!)
The narrative is also compelled by the why that lies at the heart of any adventure story. As she puts it, “We had been given ten days to ride twenty-five semiwild ponies a long way around Mongolia. Why the need to go all that way and do such a thing?” Prior-Palmer admits to the life-planning bewilderment of a typical twenty-something, but also a fear of “falling into the routines of my elders—their eggshell worlds of dangers and do-nots.” In the Derby, she finds an opportunity to contemplate home, her family, and her place in the world in extremis. It’s a journey that becomes at once an exploration of the self and a critical look at the notion of empire.
The thread of her haughty American competition, a woman named Devan, as well as a potential romance with the race veterinarian that Prior-Palmer leaves blessedly unresolved, weave some needed interest into the ten largely monotonous days on horseback. But nothing compels so much as Prior-Palmer’s voice, so many striking examples of which appear on every page that it’s futile to underline them all. Flighty almost to a fault, the narration is nearly overtaken by self-deprecation (or, as she calls it, the “British disease called modesty”). And yet, Prior-Palmer’s raw and earnest self-searching—her own wrestling with her restless mind—are a wonder. “We read of sporting victories in the newspapers,” she writes, “but what about all we cannot see? It’s easy to forget the thudded moments of hopelessness involved in a journey, one’s deepest difficulties slowly made clear.”
Rough Magic takes its title from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the themes of which Prior-Palmer draws on at several points in her narrative. “I’m still amazed I took something so highbrow as The Tempest in my backpack—without caring, without meaning it to mean anything,” she admits. But then she realizes she likes “the way it sounds, feminine and free.” The same can be said of her own journey, a fierce and feminine addition to the great history of British travel writing.
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Margot Kahn is co-editor of the New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice collection This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Lenny Letter, The Rumpus, Tablet, Publishers Weekly and elsewhere. Learn more at www.margotkahn.com.