Barbara Kay is well known in Canada and beyond as a talented and courageous newspaper columnist. A regular writer for the National Post, she generally espouses a neo-Conservative worldview. Two recent columns were titled “The key to a successful culture? Monogamy” and “Marking the end of a hollow president’s feckless record on terrorism,” referring to U.S. President Barack Obama. Kay speaks forcefully and occasionally acerbically against the forces of political correctness. For example, a 2014 article of hers was titled “Rape culture and the delusions of the feminist mind.” She is a proud Jew and a strong supporter of the State of Israel.
Kay, who has taught writing at the university level in Quebec, has certainly perfected the genre of the hard-hitting 800-word opinion piece. Now she has branched out into a very different genre, publishing a 463-page mystery novel, A Three-Day Event, with 18 major and nine minor characters. (A list at the beginning of the book with short notes beside each name is meant to help readers keep them straight.) The action in the novel takes place almost exclusively in rural Quebec, in the circles of wealthy people who own horses, and their employees who train them for competitions.
Canadian Jews can relate easily to some of the themes and characters in the book. Three members of an affluent Montreal Jewish family play major roles. A gentile spouse is part of the mix, as well as the deceased Jewish father of the family who still looms large and speaks from beyond the grave. A character named Dr. Werzberger, a bit player, described by one gentile character as the “abortion rights crusader… [a] swarthy, beetle-browed, beaked-nosed Jew,” is a thinly disguised Dr. Henry Morgentaler.
But most of the novel revolves around the unfamiliar (to most Jews, at least) cut-throat world of horses and people who dedicate their lives to horse competitions.
The mystery involves the murder of an unpleasant person and anonymous acts of violence against horses. More than one character in the book says that the acts of violence against the horses bother them more than the murder. Remarkably, the investigation of the crime is not carried out by the police or a private detective, but by a sub-group of the main suspects.
On her website, Kay explains how she came to write a novel and why it revolves around the world of horse sport: “Many non-fiction writers are curious to know whether they can pull off a work of fiction. I too wondered for decades, but it wasn’t until my daughter was betrayed by her mentor in horse sport that I found my inspiration. Suddenly my 10 years of immersion in the fascinating world of high-stakes, three-day eventing competition opened a creative seam I had never thought possible.”
To help us cope with all the unusual and unfamiliar aspects of buying, selling, training and riding sport horses, Kay gives us a helpful three-page glossary. There we learn that a “three-day event” is comparable to a triathlon competition for humans, and “combines dressage, cross-country jumping over fixed and natural obstacles, and stadium jumping.”
Anti-Semitism hovers in the background of the plot and occasionally moves to the forefront. We are told that the main Jewish character, Ruthie (Jacobson) Cooper, “knew she lived in a Golden Age of tolerance and freedom unprecedented in Jewish history. Naturally she followed the escalating progress of global anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism (almost always invariably one and the same, of course) with concern and apprehension.” But only when she was well into her adult years did she directly experience “racial hatred” for the first time and “found it an odd and very unsettling feeling.”
All the Jewish characters in the book, including Ruthie’s intermarried brother, feel comfortable with and proud of their Jewish identity. They are all wealthy and upstanding human beings. They sprinkle their words with Yiddish terms like mazzik and ziess. They like eating bagels (presumably Montreal bagels).
Kay tells us that Ruthie “knew her history… and was engaged in the collective cultural life of her people.” But when you look carefully, the only evidence of Jewish involvement (aside from bagels and the occasional Borscht Belt humour) for her and the other Jews is heightened concern about anti-Semitism and an interest in the Shoah.
Not surprisingly for a novel set in Quebec, language issues are important. (It’s useful to know at least some high school French if you read this book, but it’s not a problem if you do not.) The choice of which language to speak at any given time is significant. Many of the characters have a high consciousness about language issues. I enjoyed learning from their conversations about the concept of faux amis (“false friends”) or false cognates, words that look the same in English and French but have different meanings. (For example, the French déception means disappointment, not deception.)
A surprising aspect of the book is the alignment of the cultural, ethnic and religious groups of Quebec. In this novel, prejudice originates in gentile Anglo circles, both among rich and working-class English speakers, who dislike Jews and French Canadians. The French Canadians and the Jews, on the other hand, get along amazingly well almost all the time. An alignment like this makes some theoretical sense, but is not, as far as I know, the common cultural reality.
In sum, the book provides an insider view of the unusual combination of the more familiar world of Quebec Jewry and the exotic world of horse sport.