Recently we launched a new book by a Dunedin- based author, Jackie Ballantyne. I had reacted so viscerally to her first book How To Stop a Heart from Beating, (always floating on my list of 10 favourite novels) that I’d immediately rung the publisher, and demanded and insisted that we do a launch for this debut novel by an author I’d never heard of. I was worried that I wouldn’t enjoy The Silver Gaucho as much.
But I was also very curious. The Silver Gaucho was already of the edges of my consciousness – I’ve heard Jackie read parts of it and she has talked a little about the character and Argentina so I was also curious to see how the story unfolded. Turns out that I loved this book too and that despite its name, it’s not about The Silver Gaucho, a mysterious, silver-spangled hero, at all. The mystery of who and what it is about is beautifully written and quietly revealed.
It starts in 2001 with the death of the Silver Gaucho, an Argentinian TV hero, whose loss devastates the whole of South America, and then jumps back to 1998 to introduce Lockie Steele, a Dunedin-based travel writer exploring Argentina – she meets the Silver Gaucho and his family, and the tale then moves between Argentina and New Zealand, between pieces of Lockie’s travel writing and Lockie’s own experiences.
I liked the glimpses of Dunedin, especially the Santa Parade, learning about horses and polo and the Otago Cavalcade which I didn’t really know about as I am frightened of horses. I enjoyed meeting Solly again, the young girl from How to Stop a Heart from Beating, who is now all grown up and living in Port Chalmers – she is Lockie’s boss and, as of old, is still a truthteller. I also enjoyed Jackie’s observations of Argentina, where she has spent some time, particularly its more obviously stratified and codified society.
Lockie Steele is a strong, complicated character, negotiating her somewhat damaged and fractured family and her own,sometimes hard to manage, discontentedness. There is a slight edge, a sliver of darkness to this writing, it points up the moments of joy in the novels, and underlines her characters’ everyday lives, without ever falling into gothic angst. Jackie is particularly good at what she doesn’t write, I really enjoyed the various absences in this book of characters who we learn about from other characters but whom we never meet ourselves. Jackie is also masterly at surprising the reader, planting the odd sentence or idea that is revealed as devastatingly important many chapters later. I loved the originality of this book, I laughed often and was taken by utter surprise and tears at least once. Even a several weeks after I read it, I find myself thinking about the various characters, almost hearing the jangle of silver spurs, and the quiet breath of a horse…