Thursday 18 November 2010

Jump! by Jilly Cooper

Jump! is a sprawling bonkbuster of a book set in the glitzy and dangerous world of jump racing. When Etta Bancroft's husband Sampson dies, her bolshy children move her to the tiny village of Willowwood. She struggles to come to terms with her new life, and is bullied relentlessly by her children. One cold night Etta discovers a little Thoroughbred filly, lost and beaten, and takes her in, naming her Mrs Wilkinson. Mrs Wilkinson and Etta develop an unshakable bond, as the filly becomes a renowned racehorse and leads Etta into the world of syndicates, racing and controversy.

Surrounded by a vast cast of characters, the central story is that of a mare who gave Etta back her life.

I unashamedly adore Jilly's books. They are huge, untidy, gossipy and fun. When I settle down with one, I know that I will spend half my time bewildered by the many different names and who is bed-hopping with whom. I also know that I will be scooped up into a world where Jilly examines relationships, social considerations and class differences.

I thoroughly enjoyed the pairing of Etta and Mrs Wilkinson in this novel. They provided some structure to the book and gave the opportunity for Jilly to explore all matters jump racing. With both knowledge and passion, Jilly included subplots involving trainers, owners (including syndicates), jockeys and stable lads and lasses. Her clear thrill in racing can be seen in passages showing the excitement of race day - especially the biggest race of all, the Grand National.

The tale itself was rather cliched - poor, downtrodden horse and human find love and companionship, and come back against all the odds to win races and find love. However, I find myself not minding this, since it is a commonly used story (I've read similar from other books by Jilly, to those written by Fiona Walker, right through to the Black Stallion novels by Walter Farley). The skill lies in how this story is presented.

Jilly shows rare skill in presenting relationships from all walks of life - from bullying, to infidelity, from temporary passion, to love. I also enjoyed how she updated herself in this novel - let's not forget that Jilly is now a lady of 73 (sorry, Jilly!) and yet here there was a wonderful subplot involving a gay vicar and his discovery that his crush returns his love. Jilly even popped in a gay sex scene. She has also embraced technology, with mentions of Internet, mobiles and iPods. Seriously, my grandma would not be able to write with such knowledge about these matters, and I have great admiration that with every book Jilly adds modern flourishes to keep her stories from sounding dated.

I also adore the way that Jilly presents the animals. All of them have simply brilliant characters (in fact, it is often easier to tell apart the animals than the humans) and it was the sad moments involving the horses that had me close to tears!

I have a few negatives that I want to pick up on, however. After being so impressed with Jilly's take on relationships, I was not happy to have a couple of sex scenes that verged on rape, including one involving a foursome where a participant was being forced into joining in. I found it unnecessary - sure, include rough scenes with some bullying to emphasise the nature of some characters, but virtual rape is tough to read in any book, let alone one where it doesn't actually add to the tension of the novel.

I felt fairly uncomfortable as well with some of the work that Jilly did involving Pakistanis and Al Qaeda (I will leave you to wonder how she encompassed this into the world of jump racing!) Rafiq was a great character, and it is clear that Jilly is not racist in any way - and in fact was trying to present Muslims in a good light - but it felt so tacked on to the rest of the story. This included the rather cinematic ending, which had a bomb thrown in for good measure! It was simply preposterous.

All in all, I loved this book. It was rough and ready at times; some subplots didn't work at all; and there were *far* too many characters (even for a Jilly book!) but it was warm-hearted, exciting and romped along at a lovely pace. Mrs Wilkinson and Etta were a lovely central pairing and their story made me smile on many occasions. A whole-hearted thumbs up from me.

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