Horse is the sixth novel by Pulitzer prize-winning Australian author, Geraldine Brooks. In 1850, in Lexington, Kentucky, Warfield’s Jarret, son of talented Black horse trainer Harry Lewis, is present for the birth of a foal destined to become the nineteenth Century’s most remarkable racehorse and the greatest thoroughbred stud sire in racing history: Lexington.
In 1852, freelance journalist and artist, Thomas J. Scott witnesses the closeness of the pair when he is there to capture the horse in oils.
In 2019, aspiring art historian and freelance writer Theo Northam is in Washington DC working on a thesis about the representation of black people in nineteenth Century art when he stumbles on a dingy painting of a bay colt in a junk pile. He takes advantage of a Smithsonian contact to have the painting identified and evaluated at their Conservation Institute.
Australian manager of the vertebrate Osteology Prep Lab at the Smithsonian Museum Support Centre, Jess encounters Theo when she tries to find out more about the nineteenth Century equine skeleton kept for many years in a dusty museum attic, located at the request of a British researcher studying equine anatomy.
In 1954, Manhattan gallery owner Martha Jackson is offered a painting that markedly departs from the usual style of her acquisitions, but her generally quiescent sentimental bone twinges, and she adds the painting to her private collection.
How these characters are linked is the basis of an enthralling tale that serves as a tribute to horses and art, and those who love and care for both. But the reader doesn’t have to be a fan of horses or racing or art to be utterly captivated.
Told over three timelines by five main narrators, this story gives the reader a wholly credible collision of reality and imagination, interweaving fact with fiction, all of it rich in historical detail. a marvelously diverse cast of real people and fictional characters. Brooks gives them depth and appeal, wise words and insightful observations. And she does it all with some gorgeous descriptive prose.
“Jarret learned the unfamiliar names: the burnt sienna that he’d thought of as mere brown, the French ultramarine that he’d known simply as blue. But blue wasn’t so simple to Scott. He had Prussian blue, cerulean, cobalt, teal, navy. So many complicated words for a simple thing. Jarret knew the names for horse colors— bay, blood bay, buckskin, dun, roan— but now it seemed like every other thing was just as various if you troubled to look at it closely.”
“It wasn’t a good idea to speak without putting a deal of thought into it. Words could be snares. Less of them you laid out there, less likely they could trap you up.”
While the focus is on the horse and the people around him, Brooks also touches on racism in all its extremes: slavery, the shooting of unarmed black people, and the insidious everyday racism that occurs due to privilege or ignorance. The ingrained cruelty of modern-day horseracing, especially to those horses that fail to make the grade, is also touched on.
Her meticulous research into horses, art, and racism is apparent on every page and it is heartening to see that she has incorporated her late husband’s love of Civil War history into the story. A wonderful novel that is probably her best yet. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Little, Brown Book Group UK.