A Novel Concept

The Joy of a Very Special Horse

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By Michael Malone

“Horse” is a big, bold, ambitious novel about a horse that lived a long time ago, but left enough of a mark on society that people are still studying him, analyzing him, writing books about him and admiring him nearly 150 years after he died.

Geraldine Brooks tells the thoroughly researched story of the horse Lexington from a number of perspectives, including Jarret, a Black boy who grows up in slavery, learns to train horses from his father and has an unbreakable bond with Lexington, who he follows to New Orleans, Saratoga and Canada; Theo, a Nigerian-American art historian in the modern era who stumbles upon a painting of the horse; Jess, an Australian scientist at the Smithsonian with a keen interest in horses; Thomas Scott, who paints portraits of horses and fights in the Civil War; and Martha, an art dealer in 1950s New York.

In novels with multiple narrators, one often finds oneself let down a bit when a certain lackluster narrator takes their turn. That was not the case with “Horse.”

The perspective of Jarret is the most appealing and emotionally engaging. Jarrett knows Lexington better than anyone, and is exceptionally close to the horse. In a world where mankind fails him over and over, Jarret is never let down by Lexington.

Lexington was born as “Darley” in 1850 and raced just seven times, drawing huge crowds and winning most of the time. But he was forced to retire as he was going blind. He then became a highly successful sire.

Brooks touches on a number of timely issues in the novel, including racism and how Black men are viewed by law enforcement, with a deft touch. Jess and Theo have the opposite of a meet-cute; when they first meet, she thinks he is stealing her bicycle.

Brooks also examines horse racing and to what degree the animals are sacrificed for the entertainment of humans. Jess and another scientist, Catherine, discuss the fate of modern horses on the track. Catherine says, “Racing horses before they should even be ridden, wrecking their bones before they’ve finished growing. I mean, back in the days we were talking about earlier – Eclipse, for instance, didn’t see a racetrack until he was five. But now we race them at two, and train them hard before that. Pump the poor things full of bute to get them on the track when they’re hurt and should be resting.”

The equine minutia in “Horse” at times can feel a bit much, like perhaps Brooks did a little too much homework. But she tells Lexington’s story with grace and panache. The story of Theo devolves into full-blown tragedy, and Brooks is brave to write about racism from the perspective of Black men. Art dealer Martha’s arc sees her interact with Jackson Pollock, who is a volatile and intriguing figure. Martha trains her analyst’s eye on Pollock’s latest work.

“What had seemed out of control and random was nothing of the sort,” the book says. “The painting was tightly composed, a movement from the dark ground of the primer up through the agitation of color and line. Like the jazz faintly audible from the radio over in the house, the bebop with its insistent backbeat: It was improvisation within structure, the massive blue gashes like the powerful and risky high notes of a virtuoso.”

I don’t read much art criticism; none, in fact. But I can’t recall an account of abstract painting that made more sense.

A review in The Atlantic took issue with how Brooks wrote her Black characters, but acknowledged her skill as a storyteller.

“Brooks has a talent and passion for research that is fully expressed here – she writes beautifully about the anatomy of horses and the delicate work of ‘articulating’ their skeletons, arranging every bone in its proper place,” it says. “The descriptions of 19th-century horse racing, when the animals were bred differently and raced much longer tracks, are thrilling.”

The New York Times saluted Brooks for taking on tough topics.

“Call it a prolonged case of post-Watership Down stress disorder, but most books with animal themes make me want to run like hell; chances are the creatures are going to suffer or die at the hands of abusers or predators,” it says. “In ‘Horse,’ though, Lexington is ennobled by art and science, and roars back from obscurity to achieve the high status of metaphor. It’s us human beings who continue to struggle.”

Brooks, an Australian with an adopted son from Ethiopia, has a Pulitzer Prize for her 2006 novel “March,” about the absentee father from “Little Women.” She also wrote the novels “Caleb’s Crossing” and “People of the Book.”

I went back and forth on the ‘Horse’ title. It’s a dull one, and perhaps Brooks could’ve done better. Then again, it sets an understated tone for a story that leaps off the page like a thoroughbred out of the starting gate.

Journalist Michael Malone lives in Hawthorne with his wife and two children. 


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