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.
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.