A Guest Review by Cole
Review Summary: It may not end with an HEA or HFN, but this short story of young and naive love by Alan Chin is beautiful nonetheless.
Nathan has cared for horses all his life, but Haji is the first he’ll train on his own. When the Arabian stallion arrives at Bitter Coffee Ranch, Nathan thinks he is the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. And then he lays eyes on Haji’s handler, Yousef. Nathan has much to learn about horses, about pride, and about love, but with the ranch’s hopes riding on Haji, he’ll also learn that all things have their price.
A Bittersweet Dreams title: It’s an unfortunate truth: love doesn’t always conquer all. Regardless of its strength, sometimes fate intervenes, tragedy strikes, or forces conspire against it. These stories of romance do not offer a traditional happy ending, but the strong and enduring love will still touch your heart and maybe move you to tears.
I’ve long been a fan of Alan Chin’s. His words seem to melt of the page and flow through me as I’m reading. His prose is often decadently smooth, with a rolling gait. So it is in his latest story, and aptly, as the story deals with the training of a particularly proud and regal horse.
Nathan is a recent high school graduate who, after falling on hard times, is taking the pace of his father’s foreman and taking over the training of the family’s race horses. The story begins as he sees their newest buy arrive on the ranch — Haji. The beautiful sorrel is from North Africa and brings with him a stable boy, Yousef. Both are thrilling and exotic to Nathan, and as he grows into his responsibilities and his own awareness of his life, so do both of them grow with him, one on the track and one in his bed and as his newfound love. Add to that the harshness of life in Nevada and the racial inequality of the time (which is unmentioned, but could be recent historical or contemporary), and the situation becomes somewhat complicated.
The best part of this story is the beautiful prose. Alan Chin has a way of matching the prose to the story and here I often found the prose very musical, with a tempo that matched whatever action the horse is making at that time in the story — a rolling gait, or the ferocious pounding beats of stampeding horses. Also, I found that the most interesting character of any in the story was in fact the horse, Haji. His story is a parallel to Yousef’s. Though we know very little about Yousef (as does Nathan), we can understand him because Nathan understands horses more than people, and as such can understand Haji. He brings together the two characters, and in the end brings about their separation (you know I won’t say more than that, but it is a Bittersweet Dreams title).
A lovely horse is always an emotional experience for me, the kind that is spoiled by words. All my life I have often talked about horses — hell, most of the time I seem to talk of nothing else — but I have never been able to unravel my love of them using the commonplace adjectives of my limited vocabulary. To me they are a beautiful dream, to be admired but not scrutinized, lest they disappear before I can voice the words.
This is a story of young love, the period that is on the cusp of true adulthood, where your awareness of the world tilts to such an alarming degree. Many things can bring that change about and here it is the awakening of love for another man after Nathan’s whole childhood purely spend on his love of horses. They help him understand the change in his life, and through them they also help him see his naivete when he feels that first sting and the first touch of the coldness in the world.
More than anything, though, this story is really about the love of animals, and how they can define and explain the things in our lives, or help us change them:
I believe with all my fiber that until a man has loved an animal, a large part of his soul remains unawakened.
The Bittersweet Dreams titles from Dreamspinner are certainly not for everyone, and this story won’t be either. I won’t deny that the ending made me quite sad, but I’m also a realist, and I think that Alan Chin does a wonderful job with this story in portraying the shift between the idealistic adolescent and the reasoning adult. At the same time, the story is beautifully written and offers much more than the ending of a love affair. Definitely recommended.