The Chestnut Filly by Primrose Cumming

The Chestnut Filly by Primrose Cumming

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s not often you get a pony story like this and that, I think, makes The Chestnut Filly rather interesting. Randal Gray, a stammering and shy thirteen year old, has come into money due to a wayward godfather finally remembering that his godson exists. And as people tend to do in these books, Randal is about to buy a horse. She is nameless, young, poorly broken, and somehow everything that he has ever dreamt of. He bids for her in the auction and wins; her name becomes Amber Light after a rearing fit at the traffic lights as he walks her home, and his parents are mildly bemused and yet delightfully accepting in that terribly vacant way that only parents in 1940s-ish children’s literature can be.

Cumming is a legend in the world of pony books; one only has to look at something like this, her opening paragraph to a chapter on ‘Riding’ in The Girl’s Companion to understand quite how purely she understands the urge for a pony, even when her readers or characters haven’t yet realised it for themselves. In this sort of a book, everybody needs a pony to look after for it simply makes them better and so it is with Randal who slowly learns to gain confidence in himself and his abilities and, in the process, realise that he’s more than his mean form-master ever thinks he can be.

It’s subtle and quiet and in many senses, delightfully airy. Of course Randal has a spare loosebox at home for the pony and of course the gardener/handy man knows everything about backing flighty fillies and of course, he manages to magic out of thin air food and tack and I think the reason that it all manages to work is because Cumming doesn’t quite know a world where it doesn’t. This is how it should be; a boy should have a pony and the world should twist and yearn to make it happen.

Where The Chestnut Filly becomes something quite unique is in its treatment of ‘The Movies’. Randal finally makes friends and they come up with a plot: Amber Light should be trained to be in the movies. I won’t spoil the ending here for it’s oddly moving and deliciously alien, all at once, but what I will say is that mixing films with horse stories and isn’t often done. The most notable example I can think of is in the Follyfoot books by Monica Dickens where the ponies are used in a film, but even then it’s done with a sense of remove (and, I might add, many years after this). The Chestnut Filly also throws in a little bit of boy’s school story and punctuates all of that for good measure with some rather gorgeous Stanley Lloyd illustrations.

There’s something rather entrancing about this strange and stubborn book and I can’t quite figure it out, but I do know I enjoyed it. It doesn’t quite work all the time but there’s something so fascinatingly distinct about it and interesting and strange in what it tries to do, and the world that it tries to do it in, that it’s kind of rather beautiful for it.

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