The Mare

By Mary Gaitskill

Pantheon. 464 pp. $26.95

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Reviewed by

Katherine Hill

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Nonverbal intelligence can be a slippery subject in a work composed in words. So can communication failure, particularly across cultures. Serious writers have been confronting these challenges for generations, to varying degrees of success, but Mary Gaitskill's The Mare may be among the best contemporary efforts we have.

It's the mid-2000s, and Velvet lives in a pre-gentrified Crown Heights, a part of Brooklyn where violence and poverty are commonplace and where programs like the Fresh Air Fund offer a reprieve from costly summer day care. Ginger, meanwhile, is a painter, having found peace in the Hudson Valley with Paul, whom she met in Alcoholics Anonymous. Although Ginger is 47 and Paul has a daughter from his first marriage, they are considering parenthood. The Fresh Air Fund is a way for them to "test the waters."

What begins as a two-week lark soon evolves into a years-long mentorship, thanks to Ginger's love for Velvet and Velvet's love for a volatile horse called Fugly Girl, who boards at the stable next door. Velvet, it turns out, is a natural: "I could see her think in the dark part of her eye. The white part got softer. The girls behind me went quiet. The wonderful horse came up to me. I put my hand out to her. She touched it with her mouth. I whispered, 'You are not fugly.' "

Ginger is something of a natural, too, as gifted as Velvet in the art of intuition. But intuition alone doesn't guarantee peace, particularly not in lives as chaotic as Velvet and Ginger's. Nothing and no one in The Mare is easy, least of all Velvet's mother, who physically and verbally abuses her daughter in ways that will shock many readers. Even so, she's impossible to dismiss. "It took me a minute to realize that the power in her body didn't come from her musculature or size, but from her character," Ginger reflects on first meeting her; "she sat in her body like it was a tank."

The same might be said of Gaitskill's prose, which draws power from the plainest words and sentences. What develops in The Mare is a language of the body that addresses all manner of physical cognition. Though it occurs largely between people or between people and animals, Gaitskill's body talk also helps account for the world that people have made. "You know why those people can act nice?" a not-nice Brooklyn boy asks Velvet. "Other people do the violence for them. That's how they can have that nice world."

Rarely do novels address social problems this honestly without capitulating to despair. Yet The Mare, miraculously, is hopeful - candid and full of ruin, but hopeful, an effort of the body fully earned.

Katherine Hill is author of "The Violet Hour."

Mary Gaitskill will have a dialogue with novelist Joe Meno at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St. Free. Information: 215-567-4341,