Wednesday Book Review: ‘Derby Day’

Book critic Erin McCabe picked up D.J. Taylor’s Derby Day expecting a fast-paced, thrilling read. What she found instead was a wordy snooze.

From Erin:

There was a time when I was apparently obsessed with reading books that were Man Booker Prize winners (Possession, Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha, Last Orders, The God of Small Things, The Blind Assassin, The Life of Pi) and nominees (The Story of Lucy Gault, Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace, Atonement, The Stone Diaries, The Butcher Boy, Handmaid’s Tale, Flaubert’s Parrot).  Quite a few of these titles are on my mental list of favorite books (which means I actually remember reading them and routinely recommend them to people).  So it was with great excitement and anticipation that I discovered the book Derby Day by D.J. Taylor not only had been nominated for this year’s Booker Prize, but had a cover with horses on it (yeah, yeah, I know…), and purported to be a work of historical fiction (my favorite!) about the Derby (alas, not the Kentucky Derby, but still!  A derby is a derby, even if it’s in England) and a horse named Tiberius.

How could I not like this novel?  And yet…  The entire time I was reading, I felt like when you’re horse shopping and you ride a horse who is perfect in every possible way, but from the first second you settle into the saddle, for whatever reason, you immediately know that this is not the horse for you.  It doesn’t even matter that the horse goes very nicely, you just don’t click.  That’s how it was for me with this book.  I almost couldn’t get past the first chapter, which begins with two seedy bookies in a pub talking about horses that might run in the Derby.  This might be really interesting, but I’ll never know because for most of the chapter I had no idea what Mulligan and McIvor were talking about.  Sometimes British slang is hard to understand.  Which is to say that British slang from the Victorian era is even harder.  And although the book is described in one of its blurbs as a “page turner” that is “hard to put down,” I did not find this to be the case.  In fact, I kept thinking how ironic it was that a book about a horse race could be so long (404 pages) and move so slowly.  I couldn’t even finish it in time for the Kentucky Derby which was my original plan!

Now, I have a confession to make, which is that I have never read a book by Charles Dickens.  Still, as I was reading Derby Day, I kept thinking Dickens.  Perhaps because Taylor writes about Victorian England.  Or perhaps because he seems to enjoy populating his book with lots and lots of characters (what is he, an extrovert author?!), especially nefarious ones (almost every character in the novel is, in some way, sly or downright dishonest).  Or perhaps because of the long, dense sentences, detailed descriptive passages, and distant third person narration (which is almost omniscient except when, gosh darn it, the narrator decides to keep interesting things secret from the reader).

There are clever turns of sentences, and clever plot twists, and clever writing in general.  And all those sly characters are being sly about things that turn out to be different and more complicated than I initially thought.  There’s no doubt that Taylor is very good at what he does—which is write a story that feels like it might be an authentic Victorian novel and which is, at heart, a bit of a mystery.  It’s just that the book never quite grabbed me like I wanted it to and I never really came to care about any of the characters.  And also, Tiberius wasn’t on the page nearly as much as I wanted.

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