Horse – by Geraldine Brooks – independent book review – Historical Fiction (United States)

If I explain that HORSE recounts the true story of the most famous horse in 19th century United States history, I don’t even begin to clue you in to the scope, brilliance, and emotional power of this novel. And to be honest, this is not subject matter I am normally drawn to. But it is definitely as good as everyone says. Which I guess shouldn’t be a big surprise coming from Pulitzer Prize winning author Geraldine Brooks. Awarded five stars on Goodreads.

The novel brings together so many disparate topics you wouldn’t expect to find integrated into one novel. Slavery and freedom, the origins and hidden brutality behind the sport of horse racing, the persistent pull of human greed, the development of the genre of Equine art, New York City art galleries, interracial romance, even contemporary police brutality against people of color. Somehow Brooks pulls it all together seamlessly.

The novel moves back and forth among three time periods. Around several main characters:

  • Jess – a diligent scientist currently working to discover the history of a long neglected horse skeleton, hidden for decades in storage at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.
  • Theo – a Georgetown University doctoral student who crosses paths with Jess while trying to define a topic for his art history dissertation.
  • Martha – a 1950s New York City gallery owner with a knack for recognizing new talent, including works from two close friends, the artists Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollack.
  • Jarrett (the main protagonist) – a young enslaved boy in the 1850s who has an uncanny, almost mystical connection with a colt in his care.

That colt, of course, grows up to be Lexington (1850-75), a fantastically successful racing stallion, equally famous for the string of thoroughbred winners he sired.

Image from wikipedia

The writing is skillful. The drama intense. Love blossoms, then withers. Enslaved people are used, cheated, then sold away. Slaveholders make fortunes off the skill and work of those they “own”. Painters’ reputations are made, even as their works are carelessly passed from person to person across generations. The American Civil War splits the country, causing unexpected violence and death and stripping power from the powerful. And — in the years after the war ends — many rich find themselves destitute while some poor end up rich. 

Author Geraldine Brooks
Photo from her website

I came to care deeply for nearly every character, especially Jarrett and Lexington. At times I found myself setting the book aside because I was worried that something bad was about to happen to someone. Yet in the end I found the book completely satisfying and finished it feeling that I had just completed a work by a truly brilliant writer who knows how to both recognize a good story and make it compelling.

Don’t miss this remarkable contribution to the genre of historical fiction. And be sure to read the Afterword where the author explains the actual fates of many of the book’s characters.

More about the author Geraldine Brooks.


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