ROUGH MAGIC BY LARA PRIOR-PALMER
“Somehow,” writes Lara Prior-Palmer in her debut memoir, Rough Magic, “implausibly, against all odds, I won a race labeled the longest and toughest in the world—a race I’d entered on a whim—and became the youngest person, and first female, ever to have done so.” In 2013, she indeed won the Mongol Derby, a grueling, 1,000-kilometer race on horseback styled after the medieval Mongol postal system. Any prosaic record of this improbable victory would sell plenty of copies. But Rough Magic doesn’t just describe one triumph: it constitutes another, and in a whole new territory. “Because my competitiveness is like a kite I refuse to pull down from the sky and examine,” Prior-Palmer writes, showcasing both dexterous imagery and hapless ambition, “it has power over me.” Through arresting landscapes and many awkward moments, she rides a muscular yet floaty prose, replete with deftly mixed metaphors and off-kilter verbs. Dogs “snorkel” along the ground and cameras “drink color” from the land.
The memoir draws much of its energy from Lara’s escalating rivalry with the frontrunner, Devan Horn, which, we begin to understand as she paints the Texan “devil-woman” in increasingly cartoonish hues, is really a rivalry with her own vices—fear and self-consciousness, pettiness and ambition. “Who’s worse?” she asks at one point, “Devan or Lara?” On the page, the main difference is that Devan keeps her mask on, but Lara lets hers slip so that readers can peer beneath. If we still have trouble grasping her, it is only because, as she writes, “[t]his being human means inhabiting an unfinished form, forever moving on to the next thing . . . What use is a conclusion, or an understanding, when all I want to do is open up, mess up, unpack, and unreel?”
What use, indeed?
—Review by Mekiya Walters