Kick the Latch by Kathryn Scanlan



About one woman’s fine, hard life at the racetrack, Kick the Latch–with its ruthless concision and artful mysteries–is lightning in a bottle.

Kathryn Scanlan’s Kick the Latch vividly captures the arc of one woman’s life at the racetrack―the flat land and ramshackle backstretch; the bad feelings and friction; the winner’s circle and the racetrack bar; the fancy suits and fancy boots; and the “particular language” of “grooms, jockeys, trainers, racing secretaries, stewards, pony people, hotwalkers, everybody”―with economy and integrity.

Based on transcribed interviews with Sonia, a horse trainer, the novel investigates form and authenticity in a feat of synthesis reminiscent of Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony. As Scanlan puts it, “I wanted to preserve―amplify, exaggerate―Sonia’s idiosyncratic speech, her bluntness, her flair as a storyteller. I arrived at what you could call a composite portrait of a self.” Whittled down with a fiercely singular artistry, Kick the Latch bangs out of the starting gate and carries the reader on a careening joyride around the inside track.

Editorial Reviews


“I have been following Kathryn Scanlan’s original voice for years. In her new venture―an unusually intimate, clear-eyed portrait of a tough and engaging woman conveyed in revelatory vignettes―every word is essential.”
Amy Hempel

“Kathryn Scanlan has performed a magical act of empathic ventriloquy in Kick the Latch. This immediate, engrossing immersion in another life and world, so personally and passionately told, is compulsively readable.”
Lydia Davis

“Scanlan’s inventive novel documents a woman’s hardscrabble yet jubilant life and her dedication to working with racehorses. Shaped from interview transcripts with a real-life trainer named Sonia (no last name given), Scanlan’s vignettes carry readers across the arc of Sonia’s life…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. “
Publishers Weekly

“Scanlan writes about ordinary life in extraordinary ways by compacting it radically, like pressurizing carbon into diamonds. When Sonia describes the force absorbed by a single hoof in every stride of a horse’s gallop―“a thousand pounds of pressure held up by that one thin leg”―she could also be describing Scanlan’s syntax: compact phrases holding so much pressure. The work is structured by recurring themes: the violence and pleasures of intimacy, the balm and exhaustion of hard work, our bonds with animals and with our own animal natures―those surges of desire and aggression that unseat and rearrange us.”
Leslie Jamison, The New Yorker

Kick the Latch, a short, absorbing novel about a racetrack horse trainer…is informed by a series of conversations with the real Sonia, who Scanlan met through her mother, and it has a blunt, vivid idiom that renders gore and beauty with similar clarity. That idiom is informed by Sonia’s own voice: “I wanted to preserve ― amplify, exaggerate ― Sonia’s idiosyncratic speech,” Scanlan says. The book feels like an interview, and it’s impressive what Scanlan does within that frame, especially with animals that serve as proxies for humans in their embodiment of power, independence, and humiliation.”
Erin Schwartz, Vulture

“Kathryn Scanlan’s words will mark you. Her work is sharp, deliberate, and poised―rife with subtly peculiar language. “
Crow Jonah Norlander, Bomb Magazine

“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.”
Michael Klein, Book Post

“Careful research and deep empathy combine in this portrait of the unforgettable horse trainer Sonia. The life story you didn’t know you needed, told in a spare, matter-of-fact narration that cannot conceal the passion and tenacity of a life hard-lived and success hard-won.”
NYPL Best Books of the Year

“Kathryn Scanlan makes the mundane details of everyday life hum with electricity. “
Amber Medland, The Telegraph

Kick the Latch is a triumph, whittling Sonia’s life down to 96 sparsely worded pages that serve as a masterclass in how less can be more.”
Susie Mesure, Financial Times

“Extraordinary…Sonia’s voice is unsentimental and humane, alert to absurdity and human frailty…Scanlan is nowhere, and yet everywhere, in the shaping and patterning, in the rendering of a voice so distinctive and rich and true. Zola said that art is a corner of creation seen through a temperament. Well, we’re doubly blessed here, in having the sensibilities of both Sonia and Scanlan. Let’s be done with this awful “ordinary lives” talk, as though there is any such thing. Sonia is extraordinary and many other people would be perceived as such too, had they Scanlan to listen and make sense, artistically, of their days.”
Wendy Erskine, The Guardian

“It will live far longer in the memory than most holidays…Scanlan’s harsh, funny, beautifully sad novel is unlike any other I’ve read this year―and twice as good.”
Chris Power, Sunday Times

“Wonderful…an unforgettable, tough, direct voice, brilliantly captured…I’d never imagined I’d read and love a book about a midwest horse trainer.”
David Nicholls

“Brimming with life…Refuses to follow the paths we expect…Although there’s much tenderness…the overall toughness of the narration―sinewy, matter-of-fact, neither glib nor maudlin―seldom fails to jolt the reader…In its emotional impact, [Scanlan’s] artfully artless minimalism most recalls Lucia Berlin…if we’re left wanting more, we’re also left wondering what more we could possibly want from a book so stuffed with life.”
Anthony Cummins, Observer

“”A series of taut, electrifying vignettes…by turns exultant and brutal.””
Los Angeles Review of Books

“Scanlan is a master of the compressed anecdote and, pulled together, these finely-tuned vignettes provide raw and bracing snapshots of a life lived day to day, job to job.”
Fiona Sturges

“Spare and powerful…precise and unromantic…Sonia’s voice is distinct, her no-nonsense attitude a product of her lifestyle. Filtered through Scanlan, who writes as though with a scalpel, every mark precise and deep, it accrues an intellectual power too.”
New Statesman

“A chiseled little gem…about a horse trainer called Sonia and told in her unforgettably downbeat voice. Such poise and economy―I can’t remember a novel about work that’s impressed me so.”
Tim Winton, The Sydney Morning Herald

“A tough, beautiful novel.”
Justine Jordan and David Shariatmadari, The Guardian

“All the exhilarating pace and tension of a high-stakes derby…Masterfully precise…Every sentence seems to pull behind it an invisible weight of information and emotion.”
Times Literary Supplement

“One of the must-reads of the year.”
Open Book, BBC Radio 4

“An extraordinary story, radically compressed.”
Irish Times

“A very special read.”
Marie Claire

“Unusual, poetically told…a series of beautifully observed vignettes.”
Daily Mail


“Rings true for a reason…Poignant without becoming maudlin…Most of all, perhaps, I was moved by the portrayal of one woman’s dedication to her craft.”

“Kathryn Scanlan’s name sits beside Lydia Davis and Mary Gaitskill in that great pantheon of writers who pack so much into so little, achieving in a handful of pages what some writers couldn’t achieve in hundreds . . . [Kick the Latch is] a vivid and idiosyncratic profile of a life that straddles fact and fiction.”
Barry Pierce, Vice

“To pick up this book is to kick the latch and be rushed away: to feel the rhythm of a life told in moments, chasing an uncertain kind of win…The encounters are shared in a steady series of short vignettes, like bar-room tales settled down into a sharp-edged prose poetry…After decades of one foot in front of another, the reader is left bereft at the finish line with only thing clear. It’s a beautiful run.”

“GENIUS! Future classic, current revelation…one of the best books I’ve ever read.”
Amy Key

“Kick the Latch is pure exhilaration. No one works with fineness, with exactitude, with the beating heart of fiction and of life, quite like Kathryn Scanlan.”
Amina Cain

“A revelation in its unadorned, unromantic, plain power.”
Andrew McMillan

Sheena Patel

“I was absolutely blown away…It’s so much more than a skilled act of ventriloquism, it is a finely wrought work of art that takes one person’s life and expands it to create something wondrous and universal. The pages I read seemed to capture all that is vital to human existence.”
Tash Aw

“With this book, Kathryn Scanlan is telling us three things: life is short, it’s worth paying attention, and she’s one hell of a writer.”
Jon McGregor

“A genre-defying wonder.”
Megan Nolan

“Fantastic…Fact-based vignettes in the fictional novel form, with shades of Willy Vlautin and Denis Johnson. Either way, pure poetry. It already features like a miniature classic.”
Benjamin Myers

“A joy from start to finish, and I can’t think of anything else quite like it…Kick the Latch is an extraordinary act of portraiture. Tender, kind, and told with measured honesty, it gripped me entirely from the first page to the last.”
Jessie Greengrass

“Utterly fresh, shimmery as a dragonfly…Ridiculously good.”
Kerri ní Dochartaigh

“Kick the Latch was one of the first books I read this year and it’s still a contender for my Book of the Year. A tightly controlled, moving, brutal, tender, powerhouse of a book. Kathryn Scanlan is a genius.”
Victoria Mackenzie

“Lean, tense…bursting with sheer life.”
Lucy Caldwell

“Superb, episodic story of horse-racing, told in vignettes of violence, poverty and community. Both niche and precise in the revelation of an ordinary life (Johnson’s Train Dreams, or Seethaler’s A Whole Life) with Lydia Davis’ distillation.”
Sinéad Gleeson

“Performs the trick of turning a life, with its practicalities and speed, into art, and does so with particular charm, will, and intensity.”
Lucie Elven

“Absolute perfection. Book of the year already and it’s only Jan 18th.”
Adelle Stripe

“A genuine read-in-one-sitting experience, and a genuinely unforgettable one. Beautifully written, heartbreaking and joyous, this is one of the books of the year, if not the book of the year, already.”
Stuart Evers

About the Author

Kathryn Scanlan received a 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for “exceptional accomplishment” in literature. Her story collection The Dominant Animal was named a Best Book of 2020 by The Guardian, Southwest Review, and Publishers Weekly, and her first book, Aug 9―Fog, was praised in a starred review by Publishers Weekly as “an outstanding debut, profound and moving: Scanlan’s portrait of an everywoman feels entirely new.” She lives in Los Angeles.

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