Centaur by Declan Murphy and Ami Rao (Doubleday, £16.99)
On May Day, 1994, leading Irish jump jockey Declan Murphy and his mount Arcot suffered a horrific fall at an incongruously sun-bathed Haydock Park. The chestnut brown gelding overstretched for the last hurdle of their race, fatally shattering his pelvis and hurling Murphy to the turf. As he lay there prone, Murphy was struck on the head by a trailing horse’s hoof. The force of the blow broke his skull like an eggshell and left him clinging to life.
A priest was summoned to his hospital bedside to administer the last rites. But for the fact that his father’s extreme fear of flying meant his parents took the boat from Ireland to England, his life-support machine would have been switched off. Instead, in the intervening seven hours, he regained consciousness.
Murphy appears to have stark, vivid recall of the events leading up to his personal cataclysm. Yet when he came out of his coma 10 days later, he did so believing he was 12 years old, with the last four years of his life completely erased from his memory.
One of the many incredible revelations in his often extraordinary story is that he has not until now shared this latter fact with a single other soul, not his doctors, loved ones or closest friends. In this and other regards, Centaur reads like an act of purging and that makes for a deeply powerful memoir.
Crucially, Murphy is beautifully served by his co-writer Ami Rao who fills in the blank tracts in his mind. She starts with Murphy’s childhood in rural Limerick where from a young age he seemed able to bend any horse to his will and follows him up to the peak of his profession. She brings grace and poetry to the typically dry language of sport.
Particularly evocative is the sense of what it’s like to sit astride a racehorse going full pelt and also of Murphy before his terrible accident, blessed with unshakeable self-confidence, single-minded and relentlessly driven, but also enigmatic and somehow apart from others.
These ingrained traits were clearly crucial in helping Murphy to return from the abyss then rebuild his broken self. The forensically detailed first half of the book is devoted to Murphy’s astonishing, sometimes painful and painstaking recovery, as he compelled himself to walk, talk, feel and be again. It is an entirely gripping drama.
Fittingly, Centaur has a remarkable last act. Eighteen months on from Haydock Park, Murphy rode a horse named Jibereen to victory at Chepstow and then retired from racing for good.
The Gamekeeper by Portia Simpson(Simon & Schuster, £16.99)
Portia Simpson was a tomboy and even as a tiny child she preferred fishing and climbing trees to playing with Barbie dolls. Small wonder, then, that she chose to train first as a forester and then as a gamekeeper, much to the despair of her professional parents who had hoped for a financially secure career for their daughter.