Horse by Geraldine Brooks
Geraldine Brooks’ first novel, Year of Wonders, remains one of my favourite books of all time. She has written plenty of other rippers too, including March and People of The Book. Horse is her latest, and I’ve just finished it at warp speed with the smile of a happy reader on my face from beginning to end.
Horse is essentially a love story between a horse and a boy.
Set in Kentucky against a back drop of the American Civil War, it is also a story of race, entitlement and privilege played out in the heady horse racing days of the 1850’s.
The book is loosely based on the true story of legendary American thoroughbred, Lexington who is widely recognised as one the fastest racehorses of all time and also one of the most successful sires of the 19th century (a true horse stud, excuse the double entendre). As far as I can tell, pretty much every racehorse is related to him, perhaps even a few Zebras. His carer/groom is a young, black slave and their gentle relationship is forged on deep respect and mutual powerlessness.
You don’t have to be interested in horses or horse racing to want to know more about Lexington and, luckily for Geraldine Brooks, history left a rich vein of material for her to mine and build a story around. The story references newspaper articles, racing records, museum pieces and most importantly, equestrian portraits of the time. In the book, these portraits and records are unearthed by modern day characters who are not only fascinated by the horse and his achievements, but also the enslaved trainers and grooms who contributed so much to the sport.
One of the re-imagined characters in the story, Thomas J Scott, really was an accomplished equestrian painter and painted several paintings of Lexington. One of those portraits included an unnamed, black groom standing quietly next to the horse. Apparently, this was very odd for the time. I’d say this painting is where Geraldine Brooks took most of her inspiration but also, most of her literary licence.
Yes, there are holes and the jumps from the 1850’s to the present are jolting at times, but Horse was still a thoroughly rewarding and recommendable read.
And that’s my 2 cents worth.