Painted Horses: Book summary and reviews of Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks

Painted Horses

by Malcolm Brooks

Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks X
Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks
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  • Published in USA  Aug 2014
    336 pages
    Genre: Novels

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Book Summary

In the mid-1950s, America was flush with prosperity and saw an unbroken line of progress clear to the horizon, while the West was still very much wild. In this ambitious, incandescent debut, Malcolm Brooks animates that time and untamed landscape, in a tale of the modern and the ancient, of love and fate, and of heritage threatened by progress.

Catherine Lemay is a young archaeologist on her way to Montana, with a huge task before her - a canyon - as deep as the devil's own appetites." Working ahead of a major dam project, she has one summer to prove nothing of historical value will be lost in the flood. From the moment she arrives, nothing is familiar - the vastness of the canyon itself mocks the contained, artifact-rich digs in post-Blitz London where she cut her teeth.

And then there's John H, a former mustanger and veteran of the U.S. Army's last mounted cavalry campaign, living a fugitive life in the canyon. John H inspires Catherine to see beauty in the stark landscape, and her heart opens to more than just the vanished past. Painted Horses sends a dauntless young woman on a heroic quest, sings a love song to the horseman's vanishing way of life, and reminds us that love and ambition, tradition and the future, often make strange bedfellows. It establishes Malcolm Brooks as an extraordinary new talent.

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Reviews

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BookBrowse Review
Malcolm Brooks' descriptions of the West are intensely beautiful, but the characters are not detailed enough in their characterizations to be fully credible, and the resolution of the novel is random and jarring.

Although, Brooks' first novel Painted Horses teems with the brutal beauty and magnificence of the West, there is very little beyond its series of descriptive set pieces to recommend it. The exposition of the novel takes chapters to explain, which in and of itself is not negative, but the followup must deserve the elaborate introduction. This novel fails as soon as it delves into the substance of its characters or attempts to move the plot.

Catherine Lemay heads west to excavate a canyon, a site for a proposed dam. If nothing anthropologically significant is found, the canyon will be flooded to create a dam that will provide the nearby valley with much needed electricity. Catherine's efforts are stymied from the beginning by her lack of understanding of the terrain or history of the area. This introduction is interesting, but over the course of the novel, she fails to feel credible as a real woman. She reads mainly as a male version of what a woman should be. The result is an out of focus character whose exploits are either unbelievable in their overly male characterization, or insulting. In the rare moments that Brooks attempts to correct for his male characterization of his main female character, he resorts to discussing her menstrual cycles. In further insult, to Catherine, and the female reader, this Oxford-educated woman's only recourse to escape one tough scrape is to blame her "period." 

John H, on the other hand, is a vivid character with deep interest. The scenes from his childhood are some of the best of the novel. Sadly, things fall apart when he meets Catherine. Her lack of focus seeps into their relationship - titled an "epic love" by the marketing materials - and the relationship is unconvincing on every level. There is nothing "epic" here, except the sex scenes. I was totally unconvinced that they had any real connection at all. The nail is further hammered in by the choice to undercut the emotion of John and Catherine's meeting with a flash to John's past describing another woman. The relationship is too fast and too unfounded to be believable. 

The final chapters of the novel falter because they are overly orchestrated. Left with forcing his unrealized lovers to do something before the conclusion, Brooks forces them into an odd series of choices that feel rushed and, again, unfounded. The close reads like a different novel than the early chapters.  Because of this, the end of the book is just bizarre.


Other Reviews
"Starred Review. Brooks's debut captures the grandeur of the American West. " - Publishers Weekly

"Starred Review. Brooks delivers an authentic story, examining in gripping, page-turning prose what it means to live in the West... An outstanding debut novel that will linger in the reader's mind." - Library Journal

"The book loses some credibility as it develops more contemporary plot elements, but its vividly drawn atmosphere and strong characters will keep the reader engaged." - Booklist

"Reminiscent of the fiery, lyrical and animated spirit of Cormac McCarthy's Borderlands trilogy, and the wisdom and elegance of Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose, Painted Horses is its own work, a big, old-fashioned and important novel." - Rick Bass, author of All the Land to Hold Us

"From its filmic geographical canvases and epochs to its mesmerizing close-ups of men, women and horses whose weaknesses, wounds, and powers are in plain paradoxical view, Malcolm Brooks' novel-making is always skilled and often breath-taking." - David James Duncan, author of The Brothers K and The River Why

"Painted Horses is a wonderful novel full of horses, archeology, the new West, and two fascinating women. Malcolm Brooks should be lauded for this amazing debut. Very fine." - Jim Harrison, author of Legends of the Fall and Brown Dog

"[Brooks] evokes a time and a place tinged by an autumnal sun, the brass thunderclap of things ending and beginning again. Painted Horses will carry you away." - Doug Stanton, author of the New York Times bestseller Horse Soldiers

"In Painted Horses, Malcolm Brooks tells a spectacular story. An archeological adventuress searches for signs of a pre-conquest culture in the rugged depths of a Montana canyon while trying to fend off construction of a hydroelectric dam. . . Real and painted horses, danger and defeat, and an enduring love affair. Kept me up through a few nights." - William Kittredge, author of Hole in the Sky and The Willow Field

"Painted Horses is a gorgeous, luminous song of a novel." - Jeffrey Lent, author of In the Fall

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Author Information

Malcolm Brooks

Malcolm Brooks was raised in the rural foothills of the California Sierras, and grew up around Gold Rush and Native American artifacts. A carpenter by trade, he has lived in Montana for most of two decades. His writing has appeared in Gray's Sporting Journal, Outside, Sports Afield, and Montana Quarterly, among others.

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