BookBrowse Reviews Horse by Geraldine Brooks

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Horse

A Novel

by Geraldine Brooks

Horse by Geraldine Brooks X
Horse by Geraldine Brooks
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  • Published:
    Jun 2022, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jane McCormack
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Historical artifacts related to the legendary thoroughbred racehorse Lexington serve as the backdrop to this dual timeline novel reckoning with racial inequality in America.

Geraldine Brooks creates a powerful backstory for 19th-century thoroughbred racehorse Lexington, weaving a rich tapestry of historical and current-day narratives that aptly reflect how the legacy of slavery still ripples through America.

Horse truly does offer something for every reader. Brooks seamlessly weaves fact and fiction, past and present, to tell the story of the remarkable Lexington and examine race in America. The real-life Lexington was not only known for his breathtaking speed and agility on the track, but also for his equally talented progeny. Brooks engineers a plausible biography for the horse, filling in the blanks with intriguing research as she traces the history of thoroughbred racing, including the impact of Black jockeys and the Civil War on the industry. This is complemented by compelling contemporary narratives that explore the complex dynamics of race and relationships today.

The novel begins in 2019 with the dueling narratives of Theo, a Nigerian graduate student of the arts working on his thesis, and Jess, a white scientist working for the Smithsonian. Theo salvages a painting of a horse from his neighbor's garbage; Jess unearths horse bones discarded in a neglected attic space. These discoveries bring the characters together and a romantic relationship ensues, complicated by their divergent racial heritage. Jess is Australian and relatively new to the US, and is naive to the myriad concessions and considerations Theo must make due to the color of his skin. Alternately, while a victim of racism both subtle and overt, Theo purposefully tries to look beyond race. At one point, he discloses that he was judged by his former girlfriend as "insufficiently steeped in an experience of American Blackness" to date a Black woman. Despite Jess's protestations that race is not an issue, she first meets Theo when she mistakenly believes he is stealing her bicycle. Jess and Theo's narratives are entrancing enough to stand on their own as an engrossing read. Brooks is deft at characterization; more than once I found myself wanting to meet Jess or Theo at a local coffee shop so I could hear more of their stories.

On the heels of Jess's and Theo's narratives comes Jarrett's, or as Brooks notably titles these sections, "Warfield's Jarrett," reflective of Dr. Warfield's ownership and underscoring Jarrett's status as a slave. Jarrett's story, beginning in 1850, narrates Lexington's time as a foal and Jarrett's deep and abiding connection with the horse. Jarrett is the son of trainer Harry Lewis, and is sold along with Lexington to various affluent, white horse owners. His tale traverses the early halcyon days of thoroughbred racing (as Jarrett becomes Lexington's primary caretaker and ultimately his trainer), through a daring escape from Confederate clutches during the Civil War, and Lexington's later days as a successful stud.

The historic underpinnings of the work are as spellbinding as the characters. Whether Brooks is chronicling the history of thoroughbred racing, exploring the impact of the Civil War on African American jockeys, or detailing the nuances of American equestrian art, it is all equally engrossing. Likewise, each character's backstory is transfixing. The novel ends with a resounding and shocking crescendo that demands an examination of race in America today.

Horse will buoy your soul, break your heart, educate your mind and leave you waiting for Brooks's next work. It is just that spectacular.

Reviewed by Jane McCormack

This review first ran in the June 22, 2022 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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