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, even as the nation reels towards war. An itinerant young artist who makes his name from paintings of the horse takes up arms for the Union and reconnects with the stallion and his groom on a perilous night far from the glamour 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.
With the moral complexity of March and a multi-stranded narrative reminiscent of People of the Book, Horse is a gripping reckoning with the legacy of enslavement and racism in America. It’s always a privilege to read the work of Australian author and journalist Geraldine Brooks, whose novels March (her second novel and Pulitzer Prize-winner) and Caleb’s Crossing are meticulously researched pieces of historical fiction. She has once again woven a fascinating narrative in Horse – despite my limited knowledge of the equestrian world, I was wholly swept up by the story of one of America’s greatest ever racehorses, Lexington, and the characters that are connected across different time periods to this fine stallion.
Brooks is a master of taking a single strand, in this case Lexington, and building a story that encapsulates so much history. From the black workers who were the backbone of the racing industry in the 19th century, when racism was rife, to a 1950s art dealer who crosses paths with Jackson Pollock, and two passionate young Smithsonian researchers who become embroiled in contemporary police brutality and race relations – each story is equally intriguing, and together they paint a marvellous picture.
Horse is a not just a piece of sweeping historical fiction. It is moving, inspiring and vividly told – all things we have come to expect from one of our greatest homegrown writers. Geraldine Brooks truly is in a league of her own.