Horse – Geraldine Brooks (Hachette, $37.99)
Reviewed by Louise Ward
Set alternatively between Kentucky in the mid 1800s and modern-day Washington, DC, Horse follows the stories of Jarret, a slave, Theo, an art historian, and Jess, a scientist. What brings them together is a horse - Lexington, the greatest racehorse in American history.
Jarret is a slave, always named in terms of his ownership – he is Warfield's Jarret, later Ten Broeck's Jarret when he is sold. Jarret's father, Harry, bought himself out of slavery and is saving to do the same for his son but the situation is, of course, complex and precarious.
Jarret has his father's way with horses on the plantation, but with something more – a kindred spirit, a gentle communication. When Darley (later Lexington) is born, sired by the terrifying stallion Boston, his four white feet pierce Jarret's heart and a bond like no other is forged.
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We're used to the idea of slavery, of it being part of the world's dark history, but Brooks brings the horror to life afresh. To use the word injustice is to belittle the experience of slavery. The effects are still felt by Theo, a black man in 2019.
His experiences of racism (nothing casual about it) are the result of deeply ingrained prejudice and Brooks rips the plaster off to reveal the rotten mess beneath.
The story blisters along as we meet the colt, Darley, through a variety of scenarios: an act of hubris by a new owner, later still in the rediscovery of paintings by Thomas Scott, and then there's the skeleton, brought back to incredibly articulated life, 150 years after death, by Jess.
Bones and paint bring Theo and Jess together in a shared fascination. Their relationship is complicated, their experiences of humanity vastly different. Brooks hits the nail on the head when describing how it is not Theo's responsibility to educate Jess (or any white person), or smile upon her contrition for acts of ingrained racism.
Based on real people and a real horse, this story is authentic in its sadness, its joy, its depiction of the insanity and beauty of human nature. An epic treat.