Adventure may be rivaled only by military history as literature’s most overflowing genre. The Odyssey, the second-oldest extant work in the Western canon, established the original fan base for the poetry of personal challenge (as its elder sibling, the Iliad, did for depictions of war). In most adventure tales, movement is the engine of moral awakening: risk and hardship on the epic journey yield knowledge available no other way. In the modern age, the classics of the type are proof that staying home on the couch is no way to live, much less write. West with the Night by Beryl Markham, Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl, An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie, Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, Wild by Cheryl Strayed: just a handful of propulsive and wonderful books through which the reader can safely experience peril, not to mention the transporting and the strange. Humans are driven to do some outlandish things, and those who seek to test themselves are the “dangerous men” who “dream with open eyes,” as T. E. Lawrence wrote in his own contribution to the category.
Into this ever-burgeoning literary field comes a dangerous woman named Lara Prior-Palmer, at a gallop, with her memoir Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race. Well, a canter, since a gallop cannot be sustained over the length of the horse race into which she entered at the dewy age of nineteen: an endurance run of a thousand kilometers through the vast and forbidding landscape of Mongolia. Over the course of ten days—or fewer for the burningly competitive, of whom Prior-Palmer will prove an exemplar—riders from all over the world (except Mongolia itself) beat themselves up for the chance to win at beating themselves up. The Mongol Derby is structured as a relay, except it is the native ponies who pass the riders off like batons to the next ponies for a forty-kilometer leg. The horses are unknown to the riders, who have only a short time to make their selection from a line of inscrutable mounts. They may ask the Mongolian herders whose livestock these are which is their fastest—so long as they have enough of the language to understand the response. Or they may assess on their own, and risk being wrong. Prior-Palmer sometimes got a recalcitrant and other times a swift animal, sometimes a willing compatriot and sometimes an adversary who pulled no punches (or bucks). No matter: the Briton was going to get to the next urtuu, or checkpoint, on whoever was under her, however she could.
Every memoir is to some extent a selfie: angle, expression, and background all scrupulously arranged to produce not a portrait but a self-willed image. Prior-Palmer presents her leap-first, look-later character as impetuous, often running in unattended “pixie mode”; she is also “attached to my exterior of fearlessness.” It seems to be a very specific way of being until you realize, Wait a minute. That’s every teenager.
She decides to enter the race on a whim, without preparation or training. She says she’s never heard of the sport of endurance riding before she signs up to compete in one of the world’s toughest endurance events. Although she portrays herself as a relatively inexperienced horsewoman, that’s not entirely the case: her aunt and sometime-riding instructor is renowned British equestrian Lucinda Green, World and European champion, Olympic team medalist. Green might be laconic, but she doesn’t leave her niece without at least a little advice, including a winning technique for commanding the “equipment” that sets horse sport apart from all others—the fact that a horse is not equipment at all but another living individual. Riding is, as Prior-Palmer reflects, “a dance that demands each muscle in your body answer to an ever-shifting floor.” The most essential guidance she receives from her eminent aunt is not to get invested in the outcome. “I suspect you won’t make it past day three, but don’t be disappointed,” she advises.
Contrarian that Prior-Palmer is, she both makes it well past day three and becomes vitally invested in an increasingly coveted outcome. She desperately wants to beat the arrogant American, one almost as young as she, who declares on day one she is fully intending to win. (“I have an urge to slap her with a fish” is one of Prior-Palmer’s kindliest inclinations toward this loathed rival.) Immediately, we know precisely how this is going to end.
Consistent with the author’s headlong personality, the narrative of Rough Magic wastes little time. By page twenty-four she’s on her way to Mongolia, a place she knew little of before the “steppe folded in green waves” outside her plane window. And she’s off.
Through rain, hail, and turgid prose she rides. As an account of an exciting adventure and episodic competition, the book is a satisfying edge-of-the-seat read. As a literary composition anchored in philosophical reflection, it fails for the same reasons we don’t want kids under twenty to become heads of state or university professors: they haven’t lived enough to engage in the retrospection on which true wisdom is based. Absent the substance of experience, Prior-Palmer resorts to padding her diction with simulacra of poetic depths.
I like writing down snippets of a day, not just to record the past, but to get a sense of the present by retraveling time up to my seated, ceased point. The notebook was wet and overwhelmed, but here was the only place I could speak as though I would never be heard and write as though the world had no reading, only words lodged with the eyeless gods.
Much of this can be set down as juvenile exuberance, without disrespecting either juvenilia or exuberance. Both are required stages in becoming a writer; one needs to overextend compositionally in order to learn how to scale back. And cutting is the better part of valor, literary-wise. As a recent graduate—Prior-Palmer studied conceptual history and Persian at Stanford—no doubt some of the unfortunate prose that flourishes solely in the academy’s hothouses still pervades her mind.
But neither is the author afraid to be seen as unlikable. This disease, considered fatal to women alone, is a badge of pride for Prior-Palmer. Her judgment, toward race officials and reporters as well as to her fellow competitors, at times shocks, but it is also a sign of a sportswoman on fire. She openly admits to stealing a map from the race photographer, who needed it to complete his work just as she did hers. She’s not asking to win a popularity contest. She wants to win a race in the land Genghis Khan once ruled—and she does.
To do so she’ll forego meals, embrace injury (“Honestly, I think I loved the fall—I’d had enough of meandering”), and bleed through her breeches because she won’t stop long enough to tend to her menstrual needs. “Later I will tell people I had none of my own desire to win the Derby, that I simply needed to stop Devan [her American rival] from winning,” she avers. Does this describe the essence of ambition, or something else—something like ego? Questions of this sort arise in the reader with the frequency of geologic peculiarities on the steppe. But then, in a single paragraph that acts as a literary landmine planted two-thirds in, Prior-Palmer reveals a stunning travail endured a few years after the race. It is one of the few cleanly rendered and emotionally laden passages in the book. It details an event that required involuntary courage, which is courage all the same, and in a few lines erases any doubt that she is inhumanly stoic. For one striking moment, she is real. She is fully open, readable, and sympathetic. It almost redeems every episode that causes her, in one candid moment, to ask herself “if sympathy was an art I had yet to learn.”
It is unlikely that the Lara Prior-Palmer we meet here will stop racing, either on turf or to some high artistic aspiration. Notwithstanding this shaky start, she has too much promise, too much drive. Her win in 2013 was in Mongolia, not on the page. Not yet; she’s only on that starting line now.