Horse racing and American racism might seem like an unlikely pair of topics for a novel, but with “Horse,” Geraldine Brooks weaves them together in a captivating and masterful way.
Beginning in the mid-19th century, as the Civil War looms, and moving between the 1950s and today, Brooks manages to combine social commentary with compelling narrative – thrilling races, missing painting, mystery muffler hidden in the bones of a long-dead championship horse – and guides the reader just as an expert jockey might steer a horse to victory.
And not the least of the lessons of “Horse” is an understanding of the redemptive power of art.
The novel’s action begins in Kentucky in 1850, when Jarret, an enslaved groom, bonds with a colt who seems destined from birth to leave an indelible mark on the racing world. He is given the name of Darley, which is quickly changed to one that echoes the history of thoroughbreds: Lexington.
In the art world of the 1950s, gallery owner Martha Jackson sees an oil painting of a horse and sets out to follow its artist and owner through a century filled with turmoil.
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And in modern-day Washington, D.C., an interracial couple — Jess, who studies bones at the Smithsonian, and Theo, an aspiring art historian — become embroiled not just in romance, but in love. study of equine physiological structure and a painting that could shed light on the mysteries that have followed the legend of Lexington through decades.
Throughout these time travels, Brooks brings each setting to life. This is Lexington, Kentucky, in 1853 on race day:
“The whole town seemed to be crammed into the enclosure of the tracks: the judges of the tribunals they had just adjourned were beginning to arrive in their cars; the suspects they should have tried that day followed them on foot. There were ministers who had left their churches and sinners who could benefit from their visit. There were rogues, pimps and purse cutters; the nobility and the eminent; shoemakers, coopers and haberdashery merchants whose shops all carried CLOSED for the afternoon signs.
Later, when Jarret drives Lexington through New Orleans, Brooks paints the city in sensual detail:
“The smells were diverse, pungent: the flavor of sassafras, the aroma of grease and flour biscuit roasting together into a rich, dark roux, the intoxicating scent of jasmine, roses, magnolias and gardenias, and the scents intensity of women – old, young, their complexions of all shades, from linen to honey, honey, pecan, ebony – in expensive cloth or simple calico, dressed and adorned with more than care and style than any woman he had ever seen.
Going back and forth, the story progresses logically, with good and bad surprises along the way, and a current climax that could have been pulled from too many first pages in recent years.
This reality is appropriate, because as Brooks – a self-proclaimed horse lover – clarifies in an afterword, Lexington was a true legendary steed of the 19th century (he sired Ulysses S. Grant’s beloved horse, Cincinnati). “This novel is a work of the imagination,” she says, “but most of the details regarding Lexington’s distinguished racing career and his years as a stud sire are true.”
The main human character, Jarret, is created by Brooks, but his situation rings true. In the chapter titles, he is variously portrayed as someone’s property – Warfield’s Jarret or Ten Broeck’s Jarret – and the dehumanizing conditions and restrictions that govern his very existence paint an all-too-real background of a time period. terrible in American history.
Most moving, perhaps, is Lexington’s death, which pays an elegant and heartfelt tribute to the most formidable competitor of his time, or any other.
“He was as far superior to all the horses that preceded him as the vertical brilliance of a tropical sun is superior to the dim, barely distinguishable glow of the farthest star.”
Similar glowing praise could also apply to “Horse.”
Dale Singer retired in 2017 after a 45-year career in local journalism. He lives in western St. Louis County.