As a coming-of-age novel, The Equestrienne addresses the difficulties of friendships, families and desire that adolescence brings. Karolina’s love of riding is a reminder of the discoveries and passions that come with growing up, which renders it easily accessible to both those approaching this trialling period in life, and those who have surpassed it. However, Kovalyk’s choice of setting, placing Karolina’s story at the end of the communist rule in what was Czechoslovakia in 1984, allows the readers to engage with a unique experience of childhood.
The Equestrienne is an empowering novella, an encouragement for young girls to pursue their dreams and ambitions. Karolina, whose family gave up attempting to raise her as an athlete, finds the strength to persist, and is eventually successful in her riding. Kovalyk does not convey success as simple, but instead demonstrates how a young girl’s determination to succeed overrides all obstacles placed in her way.
Julia: The Equestrienne is a coming of age story, did you find that as a young person the story had any personal resonances for you?
Sian: I think that any young person would be able to find personal resonances in a story like this. Karolina’s persistence with her riding certainly reflected my experiences with working towards all of my goals; a prevalent example for me would be preparing for my GSCE exams, because maintaining the motivation to continue studying throughout the months leading towards these exams is difficult and unpleasant for all teenagers. However, the sense of achievement and success you experience after coming through this time truly makes the effort feel worthwhile, and it is extremely rewarding in the end. Karolina’s story is not one of a girl who is given success without working for it – she fails multiple times, is doubted by those closest to her and comes close to giving up on occasions, but with her perseverance and determination she is able to reach her goal. I think that is the message that Kovalyk is attempts to convey with The Equestrienne, and this would be extremely inspiring and motivating for young people.
Julia: The story is set at an interesting moment in history – the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia – how does this impact upon and interweave with the use of the coming-of-age genre?
Sian: The period that the novella is set in seems to reflect Karolina herself – the end of the communist rule in Czechoslovakia marks a new age of hope and liberation for this society, similarly to Karolina flourishing from a sense of hopelessness to discover her passion for riding, allowing her to experience freedom. The position of Czechoslovakia in 1984 doesn’t necessarily interfere with the story, although it is not ignored; having the context of this dark, bleak period as the basis of a story that seems to promote empowerment and ambition is very interesting for a coming-of-age story, and presents something quite unique to a reader like myself, who lives in what can feel like an entirely different world to Karolina. It is fascinating how, despite Karolina living in such a different society to mine, I am still able to recognise some of my own traits and qualities within her. Kovalyk presents characters whose experience we cannot necessarily empathise with, but there are undeniable connections between the experiences of The Equestrienne’s characters and young people in the contemporary world.
Julia: What did you think of the use of the novella form, as opposed to a longer novel? Did things seem rushed?
Sian: As a book that discusses growing up and approaching adolescence, I think that the novella form is actually a very effective way of mirroring this. To me, it represents how adolescence is a time where new things must be learned and processed very quickly, and it is a time where we are exposed to so many circumstances that are unfamiliar to us, with very little time to reflect or dwell on these situations. The book introduces us to new characters, themes and scenarios very abruptly, some of which we may not fully understand. Therefore, as a reflection of the experiences of a teenager I think it accurately depicts what life can be like. Further than this, I think that the length of a novella allows a smaller number of themes and ideas to be fully explored, rather than beginning to discuss a broader range of concepts to be addressed but left unfinished. The way in which Kovalyk balances depth and detail with a rapidly advancing plot allows the reader to be constantly engaged with Karolina’s story, and accurately reflects the world of an adolescent which is always evolving and presenting new challenges.
Julia: Riding is obviously of vital importance in The Equestrienne, but why do you think Kovalyk chose to focus on this sport in particular? What did it add to the novella?
Sian: There is a sense of disapproval surrounding Karolina’s interest in riding, as opposed to a more conventional sport. She is encouraged to take up swimming and gymnastics as a young child, but despite these influences by her family and within her school, she chooses riding. It seems that riding is viewed as an elite sport, which is interesting for a story based in a communist society, and Karolina is not deemed as belonging to this “class” of people. It is that sense of disapproval, and overcoming the doubts of others, that I feel emphasises Kovalyk’s message of pursuing dreams and ambitions regardless of how others perceive them. That may have been why she chose to focus on riding, as it seems to convey that a child’s dreams should not be invalidated and that, regardless of how unachievable a goal may seem, it is accessible with courage and determination. In terms of what riding contributes to the novel, I think that it is something that many people understand. Reading this novella about a young girl who does not give in to the disapproval of others, and instead is persistent, seems to contribute to the sense of achievement when Karolina finally succeeds.
Julia: The story mainly focuses upon two teenage characters – Karolina and Romana – were they believable? Relatable?
Sian: Kovalyk definitely portrayed Karolina and Romana as human, rather than being overly-generalised or caricatures of teenage girls. There were many aspects of their personalities with which I could connect, and they were therefore relatable in many ways. For example, the friendship between Karolina and Romana consisted of many elements that many other teenage girls also experience, and this allowed me to engage with the characters and feel a deeper understanding for their emotions and actions. However, I feel that Kovalyk did not write generic characters, they were authentic and unique, while possessing qualities in which many teenagers would be able to find themselves.
Julia: Have you read any other books that have been translated into English from another language? After reading this, are you interested in reading more works in translation?
Sian: The Equestrienne is the first work in translation that I have read, and it has given me an excellent impression of translated literature. While reading this novella, I was reminded of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief; while this book was originally written in English, the narration and dialogue contains many phrases in German, reflecting the story’s setting in Molching (a fictional town located on the outskirts of Munich). In The Equestrienne, some phrases that have remained in Slovak following the book’s translation into English, which enables the reader to become immersed in the society in which these characters live, and maintains Kovalyk’s natural style of writing within the English translation. Seeing the success of The Equestrienne through its nomination for the 2017 First Book Award demonstrates the importance and relevance of works in translation, a genre I now realise is under-represented and underappreciated. Before reading this novella, I had not fully recognised how writing styles across the world could be so distinctive and vary so significantly, and I am very interested in reading more works in translation after being so inspired by The Equestrienne.