Review: Horse, by Geraldine Brooks

The only known photo of Lexington, with an unnamed groom

I enjoy novels that tell a strong story. I especially admire novels that manage to tell more than one story and do it well. In Horse, Geraldine Brooks tells three stories, effectively, carefully, tenderly braiding all three into one compelling narrative. What’s more, two of three are true–and there’s as much sad truth as fiction in the third.

  • The story of  a bay thoroughbred named Lexington (real), his enslaved Black groom, Jarret (fictional), and a young horse painter, Thomas Scott (real), set in the turbulent South in the 1850s-1870s;
  • Of Theo, a Nigerian-American art history grad student who finds a painting of a famous horse, and Jess, an Australian and a Smithsonian curator who lives for bones, both fictional characters, set in Washington DC in 2019; and
  • Of Martha Jackson (real), an art gallery owner who becomes obsessed with a mysterious nineteenth-century painting of a horse, set in New York in 1954.

I also appreciate novels that introduce me to people I’ll never meet, take me places I’ll never visit, and make me see the world in a different way. With her novel People of the Book,  gave me all three. With Horse, she’s done it again, but this time, she’s made me care very deeply about the people she introduces me to.

There’s dedicated, single-minded Jarret, whose life is devoted to a spectacular horse who absolutely loves to win. Tom, who can never quite measure up until he does. Theo, tragically thin-skinned and prickly, who is writing his doctoral thesis on 19th-century paintings of Black men and horses and who is loved by Jess the bone-lover, who has the wisdom to see through him. Martha, lover of art and artists, whose mother died on a horse.

The stories of Jarret, Lexington, and Tom are set in mid-19th-century Kentucky plantations and racing stables, and show the daily lives of the Black men and boys who served the affluent Whites’ love of racing as well as their exploitation of both animals and enslaved people.  The story of Jess is set in the fascinating back end of the Smithsonian (who knew?) where she works with Lexington’s skeleton and with an equine vet who helps her discover the secrets of the bones. Martha’s story is set in the New York art world of the 1950s, something of which I knew through my interest in Georgia O’Keeffe. The stories of people and places are interlaced, with each illuminating all the others. Or to use a different metaphor, like a choir singing a complex piece of choral music, voices and melodies echoing each other, repeating, amplifying, muting, overlapping, first in major, then minor keys.

There’s more, of course. I especially enjoyed Brooks’ deft use of style: each character has his/her individual vocabulary, syntax, turn of phrase. Theo’s, for instance, is academic and high-flown, Jarret’s earthy. Jess has full access to her own emotional life (almost as close as first-person), Theo rarely knows how he feels. I admire her extensive research, which shows itself on every page–and at the back of the book, where she helpfully offers notes on the real people who appear in the fiction.

And there are some wonderfully daring meta-moments, like the description of Theo’s thesis argument: “that no true portraits of Africans by White artists existed; that White artists couldn’t see past their own ingrained stereotypes of Blackness.” Brooks’ novel belies that, allowing us to see through our own racist paradigms and feel the pain of Black lives, then and now–most tragically illuminated in what happens to Theo in Rock Creek Park. A White woman (who is from Australia, where racism is also an issue) wrote that passage. It should terrify you. And make you cry.

Lexington, 1857, painted by Thomas Scott

I suppose I should also say something about the ironic coincident of writing this appreciation on Derby Day, at the end of a terrible week when five Derby horses have died. Would I have been moved by those deaths if I hadn’t read Horse and seen what happened on those 19th-century racetracks, how the horses were used and abused? I doubt it. That’s just one of the lingering impacts of this important book. I hope you will read it.

One final note, from a poem I first encountered decades ago when Bill and I visited the National Horse Racing Museum in Newmarket, UK, doing research for a mystery in our Victorian series: Death at Epson Downs (about horse doping in the early 20th century). On the museum wall was displayed a line from Ronald Duncan’s “Ode to the Horse”: All our history is his industry. It’s stayed with me all these years. You can read the rest of the poem here.

Will you be watching the Derby?


Your comments are always welcome and always read; I reply as I can, and when I have something to add.

35 comments on “Review: Horse, by Geraldine Brooks

  1. I enjoy the anticipation of a good book almost as much as the reading itself–especially when it’s very special. Lucky you! And big thanks for the tip to the nonfiction Lexington. I just downloaded the sample.

  2. Here it is July!
    Thank you so much for the review of “Horse”!

    I had told my husband about “Horse” and asked to reserve it with the library. He had also ordered a new book, published this month, “Lexington”, by Kim Wickens for me, never realizing this was the true story of “Horse”!

    Two books about a horse that had “never been on our radar!”

    13 Triple Crown winners lineage comes from Lexington including Man-O-War and Seabiscuit!
    Picking “Lexington” up today!
    I have a lot of amazing reading ahead of me.

  3. I was going thru old books and in a copy of T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” I found a post card of John Buckner holding Man O’War in a paddock. The card is dated Spring, 1930. The card is in perfect condition. I guess it was being used as a book mark.

    Would you like me to send the card to you?


  4. In the 80’s I worked on an Arabian horse farm in Ohio. The tax law changed at that time, and horses became more expensive to own. Lots of horse farms became a lot less lucrative and more stressful to own whether you loved thoroughbred racing, stadium jumpers, dressage horses, polo ponies, hunters, etc. A lot of farms started to close down and even the one I worked at was closed and sold to developers who leveled the beautiful old barn. There are people, and horses, who love the racetrack. There are people who love breeding horses for their beauty and heart. Other people are in it for money and fame. Some horses are pampered with massages, love, and chiropractic care. Others are sold for meat to Canada and Mexico. It is the same with dog breeders. There are those who breed dogs for the love of the animal and the breed and others who run puppy mills that are extremely inhumane. We all need to know the difference. I read and enjoyed “Horse” and thought your review was very succinctly written.

  5. That works for me even though that term is usually reserved for pets who don’t have to work for a living. They’re certainly intelligent enough to be companions—and good company too.

  6. Geraldine, thank you for sharing your remarkable work–this book, all your work–and this important glimpse into your life. The horses who live with you are fortunate beyond measure. And we are the richer for all you do.

  7. Thank you so much for this perceptive and lovely review. You have made my morning. I just came in from morning chores in the barn where my pony Valentine (about 27) and her pasture mate, a former racehorse, Screaming Hot Wings (34!) remind me every day that horses are exquisitely sensitive animals who should never be used up and discarded after a brief couple of years on the track. I loved reading Missie’s comment, and while I was researching Horse, I was glad to meet others in KY who feel the same. For the horses’ sake, I hope many others will follow their lead.

  8. I only watch the Kentucky Derby because it was one of the things my Mom actually enjoyed. She grew on a farm and would pick her favorite for the race. On derby day, I’d call her & watch together. She was right more often than she was wrong. I miss those phone calls because after the race was over, she would often talk about her growing up on a farm in Oklahoma and how difficult it was in the 30s-40s.

  9. I commend you and your son. Too many in the racing business don’t have the same care and concern for their horses. We also brought all our horses (Standardbreds) home and I retrained them as saddle horses, pleasure driving horses, or just let them hang out in the pasture. I think there will always be a place for horses in the world. We’re still learning about how effective they are as physical and mental therapy “tools.” I can’t think of a suitable non-anthropomorphic term at the moment.

  10. Not watching the Derby. I hate the lives those horses have to live. It breaks my heart when I read or hear about animals dying. I know it’s a part of life but it seems cruel what so many of them suffer because of humans. We need to stop taking them for granted. They have souls too. I know I’m in the minority. 🙂

  11. I often scan book reviews to see if I want to read a book. But I read yours very carefully because you skillfully have me in involved in the story. Like you, I also “appreciate novels that introduce me to people I’ll never meet, take me places I’ll never visit, and make me see the world in a different way.”I have recently watched all the seasons of Heartland with my husband. We also have friends who are ranchers in SE Texas. One is an equine therapist. That, along with the death of these 5 horses insures the fact I will read Horse. Thsnk you!

  12. Missie, your comment (and the novel) make me think–and wonder–what would happen to the horse, as a species, if it were no longer used as a sport animal. Most humans can’t afford to keep a horse as a companion (like a dog, cat) or for personal recreation, and its utility as a draft animal has now virtually disappeared. What do you think? What might your son think?

  13. I was interested to read your review of Horse. My son is an equine practitioner who breeds and raises thoroughbreds. He loves each and every one of them and tries to bring each one home when it’s racing days are over. Retraining them for other disciplines We love our horses and decry those who are in the business with no feeling for the animal. I am also a friend of the owners of Woodburn who are decendents of Robert Alexander.

  14. Sarah, thank you for recommending it to me–I’d had it on my list (always too long); your encouragement pushed it up.

  15. Susan, you’ve captured “Horse” beautifully! This book stole my heart and your review told me why.

  16. Mary, that’s certainly the message of Horse, enhanced by the fact that the people who loved and worked with the horses were themselves as enslaved as the horses–and the welfare of both people and animals was only important as long as the animals were profitable.

  17. We all have different frames for this event, don’t we? Yours is very personal and close to the heart. Thank you for sharing it.

  18. Thank you for the review. Horse was already on my to-read list, but now it’s at the top. As a horse lover and owner, I won’t be watching the derby. I’ve seen horse racing first hand and it’s the disposable-horse industry. For the most part, the people involved who love the horses aren’t the ones making the decisions and the welfare of the horses is only important when it makes economic sense to the owners.

  19. I’ve watched the derby ever since I married my late husband, who was from Louisville. We would watch together and get teary when they played “My Old Kentucky Home”. Now I watch alone and get teary. I read a review of this book elsewhere and was sort of interested but after reading your review I will definitely read it. Thank you for the review and for all the hours of reading pleasure you have given me.

  20. Isn’t the internet a magical place? We can read about a book and have that book in minutes–in the bathtub, if that’s where we happen to be. Or in bed and awake in the middle of the night. Love it!

  21. Thanks–I’ll look for Bolstad’s book. And yes, Horse is complicated–one of its pleasures. In one sense, it’s easy to read because the narrative itself is so powerful. It pulls you forward almost without effort. But a reader who is looking for more could take many detours, tracing out parallels and echoes and foreshadowings. And enjoying the way Brooks put it all together.

  22. I’m not surprised that everyone in the club liked it. It’s a book with a very wide appeal–which is good, because Brooks has an important message and the more people read it, the more people are considering that message. Re the pictures, there’s more about the finding of that painting in the trash here: It was a painting of a different horse; it was Brooks’ idea to make it a painting of Lexington.

  23. Thank you. You speak for me and many readers of this blog, although each of us may draw the consumption/engagement line in a different place, for different reasons. I’ll watch the race itself, for the same reason I watch gymnasts and diving and ice-skating competitions. I admire competitors doing their best. But there’s a cultural frame around each of these. I try to keep that in mind.

  24. My book club read HORSE recently. It was my first book after joining the club, and the others told me it was the first one that everyone had liked. I loved this book, for all the reasons you gave. I like your description of the stories braided together; that was such a big part of the appeal for me. Thanks for including the pictures, they help complete the story for me.

  25. Ever since I was a child, I have watched the Kentucky Derby. I love horses and dreamed of owning one someday. One of my childhood friends mother owned a race horse and it was where I began to see what really happens behind the scenes of thoroughbred racing. Horses, like other domesticated animals are
    too often exploited by their masters. I love a good complicated read so I will try Horse.
    I just finished another book that I think you would like to read “Windfall: the Prairie Woman Who Lost Her Way and the Great Granddaughter Who Found Her ” by Erica Bolstad.

  26. I decided decades ago that I can’t ethically engage in activities that harm animals or humans. Sadly that embraces a lot – especially under the umbrella of capitalism and I know that I can’t easily honor that pledge100%. But sports like horse-racing, American football, dog racing, animal testing, boxing, trophy hunting, are examples of profit-driven industries that care little about the living beings who participate. I don’t have to watch or buy their products. People will argue with me that the animals in the Derby are pampered and subject to stringent regulation but what I see are billions of dollars being spent on a horses and their owners egos while much of the world lives in poverty. So, no, I don’t watch sports events, and I skipped the cornation this morning for the same reasons.

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