Evocative and utterly idiosyncratic turns of phrase colour every page, whether Prior-Palmer is describing a torrential rainstorm — ‘thunder burgles the sky as we sweep up off the plains’ — or the night-time neigh of her horse, shrill ‘as though calling a star down to Earth’. It’s not so much that she’s incapable of writing a dull sentence. It’s more that you suspect her brain wouldn’t know how to formulate an even moderately humdrum thought... Rough Magic is transporting, beguiling and terrifically entertaining. I hope that Prior-Palmer’s itchy feet result in more adventures and many more books.
Satirical, somewhat detached and prone to understatement, Prior-Palmer already shares many qualities with classic English travel writers such as Rebecca West and Gertrude Bell, but she is also refreshingly self-aware. “I think of us as riders, but we’re also brute tourists”, she writes. Revealing a little of modern Mongolia, and much of Lara Prior-Palmer’s inner world, Rough Magic is a heroic tale beautifully told.
It’s that intensely heightened social and emotional analysis that makes Rough Magic one of this year’s best memoirs. And a perfect prescription for anybody who thinks millennials are running low on raw grit and deep, drifting thought. Prior-Palmer displays both without being in denial of either her own age or the one in which she lives.
I loved her refusal to end her story tidily. She is not 30 yet, and still restless. “Maybe I move to avoid making – making words, making friends and love. I do spread my heart thinly as I go. Will I ever accept that the most mythic, meaningful life might lie in the ordinary: the kingdom of details and detail surprises?” Not for a while yet, Lara, is my bet.
It’s the resistance to the obvious narratives that makes Rough Magic so appealing: the book undermines lazy women-in-the-wilderness tropes at every turn. The narrator is not “feisty” or “quirky”, just a bright young woman out of her depth, persisting out of cheerful spite and narrative momentum rather than any noble calling. She’s annoyed by the horses at least as often as in mystical communion with them. She cries when things hurt, argues with her brothers in her head, doesn’t call home even when she wins. The insistence on a messy, mildly malicious and generally uncooperative form of youthful success is fresh and very cheering.