Horse by Geraldine Brooks

cover image

Like a thorough historical research project, Horse pulls together the story of Lexington, a famous racehorse of the 1800’s, by piecing together fragments of stories from different voices. Thus we learn about the slave Black Jarret a dedicated groom and horse trainer, and Scott, an itinerate painter of horses and the men who tended them, in the 19th century.  Another voice is added from 1954: Martha Jackson, a gallery owner is called on to value a painting of Lexington; and then in 2019, there is the retrieval of another painting from a rubbish pile and the discovery of the lost skeleton of the horse itself in the archives of the Smithsonian.

While Brooks brilliantly brings to life the personality of the horse Lexington and his close relationship with Jarrett his carer, and the joys and misfortunes that the horse experiences, this is not simply a new version of the Black Beauty story (Sewell, 1877), or indeed a horse story as such. Brook’s novel reveals the racism inherent in America’s history built on slavery, a racism that continues into the shocking events of current times with police shootings of innocent black men and the 'Black Lives Matter' protests.

The black figures in the 19th century equestrian paintings of famous horses are rarely named; they are the people who worked the stables and trained the horses to become winners but were never recognised. It was only the owner who took the glory. Slaves were appraised and sold on, families split apart, just as the horses were sold for their race prospects or their breeding value. The slave had no control over his own life.

Brooks raises the question of whether it is possible to have a true friendship between humans who are not equal, when one has power and freedom, and the other has always to tread with fear. Mary Barr, the granddaughter of Black Jarrett’s master, is hurt when her care for him is distrusted and her offer of friendship is received by Jarrett with incredulity. Even in modern times, the black man has always to be aware of how his actions may be interpreted. He does not have the freedom to ‘move easy in the world’, or the luxury of ‘expecting the world to be good to you’, the freedom that the 2019 Australian curator Jess takes for granted, until she is confronted by the different experiences her romantic interest, and ‘friend’, Theo, a black man, reveals to her.

Historical and current perspectives of animal rights and human rights are both important themes in Horse. But it is the voices of the characters and their different experiences that give the novel its life. The personalities, both animal and human, draw the reader in and keep us engaged, wanting to know more. It’s one of those books where the reading has been so enjoyable that you slow down reading the last chapters, not wanting it to end.

Themes: Historical fiction, Slavery, Racism, Horse racing, Animal rights, Human rights, Black Lives Matter.

Helen Eddy