Nothing has brought back the thrill of...the pleasures of excavating strangeness from banality—as sharply as reading the prose of Kathryn Scanlan ... Turns of phrase are saturated by the quiet menace that Scanlan brings to her estranging evocations of daily life. Scanlan makes art about ordinary living—ordinary people, ordinary days, ordinary events—by distorting it ... The idea that ordinary life can be the subject of great art has long been accepted when it comes to poetry and literary fiction—in these genres, its status as a worthy subject feels self-evident—but it can still raise hackles in creative nonfiction. An invented life can be ordinary, but an actual life had better be seasoned by either extraordinary suffering or particular achievement. Scanlan, however, is almost insistently drawn to ordinariness ... Scanlan writes about ordinary life in extraordinary ways by compacting it radically, like pressurizing carbon into diamonds ... The effect of Scanlan’s work rises as much from its form as from its content ... Her prose has a cool efficiency, the kind of spare disclosure that makes you feel ashamed to want more, as if you were asking for a third serving of dessert. Her minimalist style accomplishes a sleight of hand. At first glance, her compression seems to elide the evidence of its making—reticent in its concision, rather than broadcasting its artifice. Yet this radical brevity ultimately demands that we see it as a crafted thing. The efficiency is both graceful and aloof ... Scanlan’s anecdotes...do not unfold quite like a traditional plot, with deepening relationships and a narrative arc. They are more like rosary beads, each a tiny, contained unit ... The visceral specificity of her writing, by refusing to sanitize our physical presence in the world, makes the ordinary strange. It’s like saying a familiar word so many times that it starts to sound as if it were from a foreign language ... This compression amplifies the effect of violence rather than diluting it—the way a blade gets sharper the more precisely it’s ground. No extra words offer solace, distraction, or epiphanic recuperation.
The vignettes that make up Kathryn Scanlan’s horse-racing anti-epic, Kick the Latch, are models of compression ... Miniatures in a miniature, sprightly nuggets...daring to capture the arc of a life or the flavor of the track in the tightest number of strokes possible ... The violence too, somehow pales against the wonder and camaraderie of the strange small world of the track, which she describes with an ethnographer’s touch ... What’s mesmerizing here is Sonia’s voice, her rhythm and gift for telling a story. You forget for most of the ride that it’s a ventriloquy act and the author—Kathryn Scanlan—wields a mean stiletto for a crop.
I thought I knew everything there was to know about the track, by living it, by writing it, until I read Kathryn Scanlan’s dazzling novel, Kick the Latch—which is another thing altogether and an extraordinarily accurate picture of a life based on the love of racehorses ... While the idea of the racetrack as being a very different place is written into every one of the book’s short chapters, this is also a work (call it slippery fiction) about storytelling. The stories gathered here give the book its charmed and rusty character, and its aliveness ... There are places in the book that recall sentences by Lydia Davis that take the generic world and turn it into something odder. But if Scanlan is trying something stylistically similar to Davis, she’s more effectively pointing out the strangeness of the racetrack itself ... Every person and every horse described in Kick the Latch is, in a quiet and deliberate way, wholly authentic, due in part to its grammar, which sounds like the way people talk, rather than the way they think.
Inventive ... Sonia describes the duties of racetrack roles in fascinating and surprising detail ... But the most beautiful moments are quiet ones, in which Sonia processes the choices she and others have made, and of the consequences she faces in a field dominated by men. With this sharp and lovely tribute to a singular woman, Scanlan continues to impress.