Home Historical art “Horse”, by Geraldine Brooks, book review

“Horse”, by Geraldine Brooks, book review


Don’t let the title fool you; by Geraldine Brooks Horse is not black beauty for adults. Yes, the main character is one of the most famous equine celebrities in history, a colt named Darley, who later became a pop culture phenomenon called Lexington and was revered as the fastest horse in the world. . But first of all, Horse is a gripping story about humanity in all its ugliness and beauty.

Lexington is one of many characters in the book – the rest of them being human – based on real characters, like Horse is the product of meticulous research enhanced by an overflowing imagination. It’s a technique that has served Brooks well; she won a Pulitzer Prize for March, which follows the fictional father in Little woman, based in part on the real Bronson Alcott. But while the book’s historical detail is impressive, it’s the fiction that fills in the gaps where Brooks’ genius really shines.

Arguably, the central character is Jarrett, the slave groom who raised Darley from a colt and risked his own life more than once to protect the horse. In her fascinating afterword, Brooks explains that she was inspired to create Jarrett after reading an article about a missing painting by equestrian artist TJ Scott, described in an 1870 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine as representing Lexington led by “Black Jarrett, his groom”. With no more information about the man available, Brooks took his name and created a complex individual, realizing the true scope of Horse. During her research on 19th century racing, she discovered, as she writes in her endnote, “this flourishing industry relied on the labor and skill of black riders, many of whom were or had been reduced to slavery… it became clear to me that this novel couldn’t just be about a racehorse, it would have to be about a breed as well.

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The lost painting also features in the book, as Brooks imagines a dramatic and violent story that connects characters and time periods. In 1954, Martha Jackson, a dealer in a male-dominated art world, stumbles upon a similar work that is tangentially implicated in the death of Jackson Pollock. In 2019, Jess searches for portraits of Lexington to help reshape her skeleton for an exhibition, and Theo, a Lagos-born, Oxford-trained art historian, finds an abandoned horse painting and begins studying equine art. through a post-colonial lens. Examining a portrait of a thoroughbred named Richard Singleton alongside several black grooms, titled Richard Singleton with Harry, Charles and Lew de Viley, Theo thinks the artist “may have portrayed these men as individuals, but perhaps only in the same clinical way that he documented the exactly splendid musculature of the thoroughbred. It was impossible not to suspect some equivalence between men and horses: valued, no doubt, but living by the will of their slaveholder, subjected to the whip. He goes on to remark that “while the horse had two names, men had only a”.

Horse unfolds in chapters told from different points of view, and each time the reader finds Jarrett, the chapter is named after his slaver, as the groom might have been described in the title of a painting: Warfield’s Jarrett, Ten Broeck’s Jarrett , Alexander’s Jarrett . It is a device that compels the reader to consider a world in which gifted horses are valued more than human beings. And that’s not the only big question Horse request. At a research facility studying the decline of the North Atlantic whale population, Jess ponders “the artistry and ingenuity of our own species” and wonders, “How can we be both so creative and destructive? But far from being a moralizing tale of man’s inhumanity to man and beast, this novel is a page-turner that reads like a series of riddles: Who is this horse? Who was her fiancé? What happened to their shared portrait?


While these explorations drive the plot, it’s the voices of the different characters, each so distinct, that make the novel as enjoyable to read as it is thought-provoking. In 2019, Jess thinks, “quarries can be as accidental as car wrecks.… Few of the girls from Burwood Road in western Sydney have been able to travel to French Guiana and bounce through the rainforest with specimens of scorpions tied across the jeep like so much laundry drying.” In 1854, Jarrett observed that “to be regarded as cattle was as bitter as a gall nut.” And that same year, the equine painter, gambler and sometimes journalist Thomas J. Scott muses: “Modest earnings, payments for reporting – as always, paltry and laggy – would not have kept me long in New Orleans, a city whose pleasures are immense .are a constant tax on the purse.The care with which Brooks crafts each character’s voice is a call to look beyond the categorical labels and captions with which we describe each other, to truly see the individual. .Asso Tied to a compelling plot, the evocative voices create a story so powerful that reading it feels like watching a neck and neck horse race, galloping to its conclusion – you just can’t look away.

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