The Bossy Bookworm
Review of Horse by Geraldine Brooks
Geraldine Brooks's Horse digs into issues of race across three timelines, linked by a special bond between an enslaved man and a horse in 1850s Kentucky.
He wants to think he’s from the best breeding. He wants to think himself brave. Can he win against all comers? And if not, does he have self-mastery to take a loss, stay cool in defeat, and try again undaunted? Those are the qualities of a great racehorse and a great gentleman. A gentleman likes to have a horse that gives the right answers to those questions, then he can believe that he will give the right answers too.
In Geraldine Brooks's newest novel, Horse, she links three periods in time: 1850 Kentucky, where an enslaved groom and a foal forge a bond and an itinerant painter captures their likenesses; 1954 New York City, in which a gallery owner becomes obsessed with the mid-nineteenth-century painting; and 2019 Washington, DC, when two historians are linked by their interest in a record-breaking stallion from the past.
Horse takes place primarily in the 1850s timeline, as we see Jarrett grow up enslaved and dedicated to his horse Darley (later renamed Lexington in a change of control--of both horse and man). Jarrett builds a complex sense of self, linked to the horse and enjoying moments of autonomy related to training and care, yet ultimately trapped without any say in his present or future and subject to all manner of cruelties, both careless and intentional.
But Brooks also builds rich stories in each of the other interconnected timelines, as we see privileged Martha Jackson dive into the art world and, decades later, the fraught attraction between Jess and Theo.
Horse is, on the surface, about the deep bond between Jarrett and Lexington. But issues of race and their inextricable involvement in our nation's history are really the bedrock for the book--Jarrett is an enslaved man who suffers greatly yet experiences moments of respect due to his insight and talent; Martha's link to her Black maid is also her link to a key painting and therefore the other timelines here; and Jess and Theo struggle to understand each other's contexts across a racial divide. Painter Scott presents himself as a forward-thinking liberal, but through Jarrett's eyes we see his faulted approach to expressing this. Theo is frequently frustrated by Jess's lack of understanding and off-the-cuff remarks that showcase her white privilege.
Jess's modern-day expertise and Smithsonian access were one of the most captivating elements of the book for me.
Based on the true story of the thoroughbred Lexington, Horse delves into fascinating, complicated aspects of science, art, and race as it spans decades.
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Geraldine Brooks is also the author of The People of the Book, March, Year of Wonders, Caleb's Crossing, and The Secret Chord.