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Review: Horse

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

3/5 stars

I'm a huge Geraldine Brooks fan - one of my all-time favorite books is People of the Book - so when I realized she had a new one out I rushed to get it (err, to put it on hold and wait for a few weeks) from the library!

What I'm not is a horse person, and if it had been by any other author I wouldn't have given it a chance. The 3-star rating is less to do with the subject matter, than with a romance that I didn't find believable, and a forced, unsubtle woke-ness in one climactic scene near the end.

But! I did like it! One of my favorite things about Brooks is her commitment to impeccable research, and her ability to tell an over-arching story that often spans many eras. Horse is all of these things. As a work of historical fiction, I learned quite a lot about the real-life thoroughbred racing horse named Lexington, who broke records in the early 1850's before his racing career was cut short when he went blind (due to a growth on his skull). The story follows a few different timelines - one with Lexington himself, and all the characters that play a part in his life. This includes his various owners, and his groom, Jarrett - a young slave who works particularly well with the horse. Jarrett was one of the best characters, well-rounded and well-written. In 1954, a wealthy NYC gallery owner named Martha comes across a portrait of Lexington with a young black man. In 2019, Jess, a Smithsonian scientist who specializes in bones, and Theo, an art historian, join forces to unravel the history of Lexington, his articulated skeleton, which is found in an attic of a Smithsonian building in DC, and a painting of him, which Theo came across accidentally.

I was most interested in the historical 1800's storyline, following Jarrett as he finds ways to stand up to his different masters in order to protect and care for the horse, as well his close friendship - and it must be called that - with the horse himself. Jarrett is by Lexington's side from birth to death, and the horse responds to no one else quite like he responds to his groom.

The 1954 storyline wasn't really necessary. It didn't add much, and there were way too many convenient, serendipitous moments - like that Martha's maid's family just happens to have a portrait of Lexington, who was related to the horse that Martha's mother was obsessed with, and died riding.

In present day Washington, DC, the parts I enjoyed were more scientific - looking at the actual skeleton of the horse, learning about how it was found and preserved, and connecting it to the painting. I was less enthused about the budding romance between Jess and Theo, but that could also have partly been because I didn't think either character was very well developed, and therefore, neither was their relationship. Their connection was disjointed and tenuous - and not just because she is white and he is Black - but Nigerian, not African-American. Something about the way they had conversations about race rubbed me the wrong way. It was heavy-handed. While the 1800's portions were thoughtful and truthful about race, in the modern day storyline it felt like Brooks' editor said, "you know, Black Lives Matter and all that stuff is happening right now - maybe include some stuff about race relations today?" There was also a very brief nod to the COVID-19 pandemic that felt very afterthought-y.

So, I know, not a glowing recommendation. I do think this book had issues, but I also love Brooks' imaginative way of linking storylines and items throughout time, and for that, I enjoyed it.


UP NEXT: The Cat Who Saved Books, by Sosuke Natsukawa

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