The driving character of the novel Horse is Lexington, the most famous American racehorse of the 19th century. But this story is so much more than about a great stallion who sired champions. Geraldine Brooks uses Lexington as a backdrop to write about the consequences of one of this country’s greatest sins, slavery.
The sweeping novel effortlessly weaves back and forth from before the Civil War to the modern day. In 1850, a slave boy named Jarret becomes the groomer to a colt on a horse farm in Kentucky. Jarret has a natural gift with horses, which is enhanced by the tutelage of his father, a freed slave who is a respected equine trainer. The human-animal bond between Jarret and Lexington throughout the book is moving. Jarret is my favorite character in Horse, with his determination to keep Lexington safe while trying to buy his freedom. So many great racehorses were trained and groomed by slaves like Jarret for their white masters, yet their stories have gone untold.
Lexington’s legacy brings together the modern-day characters of Theo and Jess, who have little in common but are attracted to each other. Theo, a mixed-race son of diplomats, grew up in elite society and was a polo master. Jess, who is white, grew up poor in Australia. She pursued a passion for animal bones, and now is a scientist for the Smithsonian Institution. Theo, a PhD art history student, is intrigued by a discarded painting of a beautiful bay horse. When he begins to research the origin of the painting, he meets Jess, who is researching the origins of horse bones that are stored at the Smithsonian. Their first encounter is marred when Jess thinks Theo is trying to steal her bicycle. Theo, who is used to microaggressions as a black man, brushes it off, while Jess is mortified by what her behavior implied.
The novel is not perfect. As her editor, I would have suggested that Brooks delete the 1950s scenes about a female art dealer, which I didn’t think enhanced the story. But that is quibbling, and I imagine it is hard to tell a Pulitzer Prize winner that kind of thing.
I believe Brooks is one of great historical novelists of our time. Her writing is beautiful and her research is impressive. She clearly draws on parts of her own life for this book. She grew up in Australia, owns horses, and adopted a son from Ethiopia. She asked him to read early drafts and share insights into the contemporary Black experience. Horse is a magnificent, multi-layered story that will hold its own next to Brooks’ other great novels, including March, People of the Book, Caleb’s Crossing and The Year of Wonders. It will appeal to fans of historical and literary fiction, and of course, horses.