Horse by Geraldine Brooks

Reviewed by Harriet

Geraldine Brooks specialises in historical fiction. I read and hugely enjoyed her first two novels: the international bestseller Year of Wonders (2002), based on the true story of the village of Eyam which, in 1666, cut itself off from the rest of England when the plague struck, and Pulitzer Prize-winning March (2005), the story of the ‘absent father’ of the March girls in Little Women. She is back in the Civil War era with Horse, in which again she mingles known facts with fiction in a complex narrative that swings between the mid-nineteenth century and the present-day. 

The novel begins in Washington DC in 2019, when Theo, a PhD student in art history, pulls a painting out of a neighbour’s trash. The subject of the painting is a horse with white feet which is being held by a Black groom. His curiosity is piqued, and he determines to find out more. Meanwhile, back in 1850, the horse is revealed to be the famous Kentucky thoroughbred Lexington, who won every race he entered and sired generations of winners. As for his groom, this is Jarret, still a teenager when the novel starts, who is learning from his experienced trainer father Harry. While Harry has managed to buy own his freedom, he has not been able to do the same for his son, so as the novel moves forward the young man is variously ‘Warfield’s Jarrett’, ‘Ten Broeck’s Jarrett’, and so on through a range of owners from whom he experiences everything from kindness to toleration to ill use. Throughout it all, however, he is with Lexington, progressing from his groom to his trainer, and staying with his beloved horse until the end of his life. For this is, among many other things, a love story. I was never horse-mad, though as a young teenager I used to accompany a school friend to the nearby stables where she would muck out and groom the horses in exchange for free rides, but I’ve always had tremendous respect for these beautiful, powerful creatures, and Brooks fully demonstrates how close a horse and his trainer can be. A horse-lover herself, she paints an often heartrending picture of the unwavering devotion between the young man and his equine  friend. 

But this is pre-civil war America, and – as Brooks says in her Afterword – Horse is a novel both about racing and about race. It’s often upsetting, though never surprising, to read of Jarrett’s various clashes with his white owners and their families, friends and employees, but the theme of race does not end there. For Theo, the finder of the painting, is himself Black and, though the son of two diplomats and educated at Oxford and Yale, has experienced racism throughout his life. Indeed, even his soon-to-be girlfriend Jess, an Australian osteologist (expert on bones), thinks the first time she sees him that he is attempting to steal her bike. The two are brought together by the fact that the horse skeleton she is working to restore turns out to be that of Lexington himself: the skeleton of the most famous horse in racing history has been clumsily reassembled and then shoved into an attic of the Smithsonian Museum with no identification attached. By a mixture of scientific methodology and Jess’s skill, Lexington is identified and his bones rewired so his former beauty and glory are perceptible again.

Though the major characters here are Jarrett and Theo,  the equestrian artist Thomas J Scott and painter of Lexington’s portrait also puts in an appearance and narrates a few chapter. Unlike Jarrett’s owners, he treats the young man with respect, and his lack of racism is confirmed later in the novel when he forms a relationship with a young Black man in New Orleans. Thomas is one of the few characters who sees Jarrett for what he is; another is young Mary Barr, daughter of the abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay. Mary makes several attempts to befriend Jarrett, but the young man’s pride and intrinsic distrust of white people prevents what, in a quite a different novel, could have been an interracial love story. It is Thomas and Mary who try to dissuade Jarrett from an escape bid which they know will end in disaster.

Geraldine Brooks has done a staggering amount of research for this novel, and many of the characters who appear are based on people who really existed. Lexington did, of course, and his bones were indeed discovered gathering dust in the Smithsonian attic. Jarrett himself has no historical record – his enslaved status made sure of that – but Brooks found his name in a old Harpers Magazine article from the end of the nineteenth century: the article describes a now lost painting of Lexington ‘with Black Jarrett, his groom’. There are also brief forays into the 1950s where we encounter Jackson Pollack and the celebrated Modernist art dealer Martha Jackson, who included Thomas Scott’s painting of Lexington in her collection.

More than anything, though, the novel sets out in painful detail the utter disrespect for the talented Black grooms, trainers and jockeys that persisted in the mid-nineteenth century despite the fact that they were clearly responsible for the success of some of the greatest racehorses of all time. Theo’s story, meanwhile, which does not end well, shows what is sadly too plain today: racism is alive and well in the present day.

This is an impressive book. It’s long and detailed but always absorbing. Brooks is a fine writer, and I’m now planning to catch up with the few of her novels I’ve managed to miss along the way.

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Harriet is one of the founders and co-editor of Shiny New Books.

Geraldine Brooks, Horse (Little Brown, 2022), 978-1408710098, 416pp., hardback. 

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Comments

  1. Excellent review Harriet. As a horse & racing lover, this has gone straight to the top of my must-read pile.
    Cheers!

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