Monday, February 6, 2023

Horse by Geraldine Brooks

Title: Horse
Author: Geraldine Brooks
Publication: Viking, hardcover, 2022
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: 19th, 20th, and 21st century United (or not so) States
Description: Brooks tells the fascinating story of the little-known but legendary racehorse, Lexington, by imagining his enslaved groom/trainer, along with the real-life artists of the era who specialized in equine portraits, a 20th-century art dealer, and two contemporary characters who meet in DC and puzzle out the history together. Lexington was bred in Kentucky prior to the Civil War, trained by Old Harry, an enslaved man who was able to buy his freedom. His son Jarret cares for the horse from birth and is sold along with the horse to a Louisiana-based racing entrepreneur. Jarret’s relationship with Lexington is the heart of the book. In present-day Washington, Australian Jess, a scientist who reconstructs bones for the Smithsonian encounters Theo, a Nigerian American art grad student at Georgetown. A horse skeleton and two paintings of a horse connect the past and present in this compelling dual timelines novel.

My Impression: The book begins with Theo, a graduate student in art history at Georgetown, finds a painting of a bay colt discarded in a neighbor’s trash. He meets Jess when she thinks he is stealing her bicycle. She is mortified when she realizes she jumped to conclusions but Theo has experienced many racist incidents and has learned to contain his anger. They meet again later as it turns out each of their research leads them to this historic horse. Theo’s experience of racism is made real to the reader repeatedly and Brooks also shows how even well-intentioned white characters offend. Somehow he and Jess establish a romantic relationship although Theo is sure it can’t work.  

The relationship between the horse and Jarret is beautifully portrayed. Even when both are abused – Jarret being put to work in the cotton fields and lashed for being slow and Lexington by a bad trainer – their connection is powerful:
[Jarret] knew he had taken a risk. But the horse’s welfare mattered more to him than his own. Gently, firmly, he eased Lexington up on unsteady legs. The horse was quivering all over, his strong muscles turned to jelly. But even in his pain, the horse nuzzled at Jarret, his nose pressing into his cheek. “I know, I know,” Jarret whispered. “I missed you too.” Jarret led him out and walked him slowly along the fence line. The horse dragged on the rope, tossed his head, and pawed at the ground, obviously distressed. But Jarret coaxed and cooed at him, encouraging him, praising his every step.
Horse is compelling and heartbreaking in equal measure; it is not possible to read this book with dry eyes.  Brooks reveals similarities between Theo’s experiences in 21st-century Britain and America and Jarret’s life as a slave in the 19th century that are disturbing yet very convincing. Her research is clearly meticulous and she manages to avoid the smug information dump that annoys me in some historical fiction – my favorite genre when done well and the brunt of my disgust when it is not. Many of the characters in this book (including the horse!) were historical figures and Brooks mingles them with imagined ones in a way I found very natural. I also appreciated the Afterword and the Lexington’s Historical Connections in the back matter of the book. Books with multiple timelines sometimes suffer from the author’s inability to make each one authentic. Here, even though some of the sections are much shorter than others, I was pulled into each character’s story or perspective and completely absorbed. Theo’s story was harsh but seemed only too plausible.

I have only read two of Brooks’ previous books: March, which won the Pulitzer, was very readable but I did not really agree with some of her premise and found it improbable. I preferred People of the Book but felt it was a lot of effort to keep the characters straight. Horse is an impressive work, not least because Brooks' love of horses shines through the narrative. You know you have read a memorable book when you finish, go back to read certain sections, then immediately want to discuss it with friends or give it to family members.
Source: Library. This is my second historical novel of the year for Marg’s 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the best book I have read this year (admittedly, it's only February but still). Coincidentally, my mother’s book group is also reading Horse this month.


TracyK said...

It would be hard to read a book with abuse of both the horse and Jarret, but it sounds like a good read otherwise. I am glad you enjoyed it so much.

thecuecard said...

I liked this novel of Lexington the horse as well. My favorite parts were of Jarret and the horse ... I was mostly captured by that story ... the Theo part were a bit lesser to me. Still it was interesting historical fiction about the black jockeys of long ago.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed Horse very much. My one criticism is that I didn't like the ending with respect to Theo. Plausible, sadly yes, but I didn't think it added anything to the story.

CLM said...

I didn't like what happened either but don't you think it was meant to show that we hadn't come that far from Jared's experience? Jared and Theo were parallel characters; both mistreated and judged by those who should have known better.