Horse by Geraldine Brooks
£18.99, published by Small group of brown books
This historical novel begins with the simple discovery of a discarded painting and from there, Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks carefully interweaves three stories centering on a legendary racehorse, one “so beautiful that the best artists equestrians competed to paint it”.
We are first introduced to Theo, a Nigerian-American art historian with an interest in equines and the antebellum south who comes across an oil painting of a white-socked horse in Washington. DC. The horse in question is Lexington, one of the most prolific bulls in the race.
Set in 2019, the modern tale stems from Theo’s romantic relationship with Jess, a Smithsonian scientist. As Theo tries to uncover the true story of the unsung Dark Riders, Jess studies Lexington’s bones after they were recovered from a dusty old attic.
Brooks moves seamlessly between different times and places, and another installment of the novel is set in 1950s New York. It follows a pissed off gallery owner named Martha Jackson, who also becomes obsessed with a Lexington painting of mysterious provenance.
The story following Lexington’s racing career is the driving force behind the novel, which oscillates between his record-breaking career on the track and the afterlife in art. The link is provided by a young traveling artist who makes a living painting racehorses in 1850s Kentucky.
A member of the motoring press, the entertainer socializes with mega-rich landlords (and slave owners) but is most comfortable with Jarret, the slave groom who forms a bond with Lexington as the colt who carries the horse to record victories across the south. It’s a turbulent but important story, highlighting the all-too-often-overlooked contribution of black riders to America’s burgeoning racing industry.
The attention to historical detail is impressive, but what stands out most is Jarret’s characterization. When Lexington is sold, Jarret is sold with him and, as the horse gets better and better, so does his groom. They are considered property, and while gaining freedom is not enough, Jarret develops as an individual.
This allows him to circumvent the atrocities suffered by other slaves for the duration of the novel but, after the sale of Lexington, there is a brief period when Jarret finds himself picking cotton on a plantation, which shows how his married life could easily be taken away from him.
The racetrack scenes are particularly evocative, and the glamor of arriving cars with well-dressed ladies and old-fashioned wagering between country gentlemen is juxtaposed with the cut and thrust of the races in which Lexington’s unparalleled power is transmitted well.
While taking some degree of creative license, Brooks sticks pretty closely to historical detail. Lexington was known as the best racehorse of his day and was retired due to poor eyesight before being crowned top stallion in the United States 16 times. His famous offspring include Preakness.
The novel is far from being dependent on the race, however, and culminates with the outbreak of the Civil War. One perilous night, Jarret is forced to make harrowing decisions to survive and protect Lexington.
This imaginative work of fiction is wonderfully written and skillfully structured. It’s also easy to connect with the characters, although Martha, Theo and Jess could have been developed a bit more, and the overall narrative is punchy and engages the reader throughout.
Yes, it’s a novel about a legendary racehorse, but it offers so much more than that. It shines a light on the injustice of slavery, emphasizes the power of art, and ends with a stark reminder of the inequality that still exists more than 100 years after the story of the extraordinary life of Hock.
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A welcome addition on racing history to any racing enthusiast’s collection
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