Published by Viking on June 14, 2022
Genres: Fiction, General, Historical, Literary
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A discarded painting in a junk pile, a skeleton in an attic, and the greatest racehorse in American history: from these strands, a Pulitzer Prize winner braids a sweeping story of spirit, obsession, and injustice across American history
Kentucky, 1850. An enslaved groom named Jarret and a bay foal forge a bond of understanding that will carry the horse to record-setting victories across the South. When the nation erupts in civil war, an itinerant young artist who has made his name on paintings of the racehorse takes up arms for the Union. On a perilous night, he reunites with the stallion and his groom, very far from the glamor of any racetrack.
New York City, 1954. Martha Jackson, a gallery owner celebrated for taking risks on edgy contemporary painters, becomes obsessed with a nineteenth-century equestrian oil painting of mysterious provenance.
Washington, DC, 2019. Jess, a Smithsonian scientist from Australia, and Theo, a Nigerian-American art historian, find themselves unexpectedly connected through their shared interest in the horse--one studying the stallion's bones for clues to his power and endurance, the other uncovering the lost history of the unsung Black horsemen who were critical to his racing success.
Based on the remarkable true story of the record-breaking thoroughbred Lexington, Horse is a novel of art and science, love and obsession, and our unfinished reckoning with racism.
Let me preface this by saying I rarely review audiobooks because they often fail to leave a mark. They are unmemorable. I finish one, and I already have the next one waiting in the wings. Horse by Geraldine Brooks, however, is an exception. I do not buy books anymore, as my library has a vast catalog. I only purchase books if I feel I’d read them again—and Horse qualifies. The novel is educational, convicting, and eloquently written. Though fictional, Horse is based in fact. Three stories from three time periods intertwine into a memorable and imaginative tale.
A horse. A horse that stands the test of time—Lexington connects generations. I will admit: Horse first drew me due to the title. I am a horsewoman, what can I say? Though Lexington cannot speak, the human characters speak for the horse from the 1950s to the present. The stallion serves as the star around which all the characters orbit, grow, and learn. Jarret, from a slave boy to a man. Martha Jackson opened her Manhattan gallery in 1953, featuring up-and-coming artists. Now, her name remains as one of the most influential in the development of 20th-century American art. At the Martha Jackson’s bequest, a Thomas J. Scott painting of Lexington went to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Brooks also introduces her readers to Theo (a Nigerian-American art historian) and Jess (an Australian osteologist) in the present time. Theo becomes interested in equine art after his neighbor throws away an old painting, and Jess locates Lexington’s skeleton in the Smithsonian’s attic. They work together to learn Lexington’s story and eventually, carefully transfer the horse’s remains to the International Museum of the Horse in Lexington, Kentucky, where the skeleton remains today. I’ve had the privilege of seeing it, but until reading Horse by Geraldine Brooks, I did not know its full story.
Even though Horse is historical fiction, it shines a spotlight on so many problems in our society, both past and present. The horror and tragedy of slavery. Of treating people like property. Of greed over welfare. Of racial inequality—an inequality that still exists today. Of misconceptions. Of misinterpretations based in deeply seated prejudice that can have fatal consequences.
Horse by Geraldine Brooks may be my favorite book I have read in 2022. At the time of writing this review, I had read 140 books in the year, if that is any indication. It flows, with flawless imagery and beautifully written language. Brooks effortlessly co-mingles fiction with real history. I wish I could go back and experience it again for the first time.