Monday 13 March 2023

Guest review by Penny Dolan: HORSE by Geraldine Brooks


"Her historical and geographical settings feel convincingly well-researched, whether she is describing families and their great estates, life on the Mississippi or the horrors of the American civil war."

Penny Dolan
works as a children’s storyteller and writer. Her last novel for older children, A Boy Called Mouse, was nominated for the Young Quills Historical Fiction Award, and she is currently completing a companion book. As well as being a regular reviewer here, she posts on The History Girls, on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure and can be found on Twitter @PennyDolan1.

by Geraldine Brooks, a Pulitzer winning novelist, appeared on my book group’s reading list. Its nomination by a member who, to our surprise, is a part-owner of a racehorse, gave Horse strong equestrian support. Additionally, when our local library supplied not four but eight new hardback copies, it was clear that somewhere in the county was a librarian who thought the novel worth purchasing. But was it worth reading? Here are my thoughts.

Brooks’ wide-ranging novel is spread between three American centuries, being a narrative about the early growth of horse-racing and about the meanings within that word “race”. Horse revolves around three specific ideas: a bay foal that became a prize-winning stallion, a lost equine portrait and a skeleton stored within the Smithsonian Museum.

The cover design gives a glimpse at an old painting which reveals a formally dressed black groom holding the rein of a tall brown horse and a black jockey in the coloured silks of the 1850s. Both men appear wary about being “uncovered”. This groom and the bay horse form the core of Brooks’ novel.

When the reader first meets Jarrett, he is an enslaved boy, working beside his father in the stables of a rich Kentucky landowner. After forming a deep bond with the new-born foal named Darley, Jarrett stays close to the creature during its early years. When the colt, re-named Lexington, passes to another landowner, Jarrett follows.

We see that his life is clearly easier than that of black slaves out in the fields. Jarrett is clothed, fed and treated well, principally because of his value to Lexington. Yet both are at the mercy of the wealth, whims and promises of their owners. For example, although gambler and race-course owner Ten Broek had given his word that Lexington would never be whipped, as soon as he has starts promoting timed, high-stakes races on his track, that promise gets forgotten:

Jarrett ‘could see the horse’s flanks heaving in obvious distress. He turned on (the jockey) Meichon. “What were you rowling him for?” he cried. “You could see it wasn’t in him.”

Meichon looked defiant. “Marse Ten Broek say I ‘ave to ride ‘ard. I think – they say – he ‘as bet against us so ‘e want no person to say he cheat.”

Jarrett threw his head back and cursed the sky.’

Even as Jarrett curses, he knows that challenging the master’s actions could mean being sent out to work in the fields or sold.

Moreover, throughout the book, Brooks emphasises his situation as evident in her chapter headings: at first he is Warfield’s Jarrett, then Ten Broek’s Jarrett and finally Alexander’s Jarrett. He is a man without independence.

Around this historical core, Brooks wraps a contemporary tale about two academics meeting in Washington in 2019. Jess, an Australian, and interested in bones since childhood, is an anthropologist and Smithsonian scholar. who starts to study a forgotten equine skeleton to discover more about the horse’s identity and power of endurance. Theo, an Afro-American art historian, is studying the role of Black men during the early years of horse-racing. When an energetic dog brings the pair together, their quest leads them through all the hidden archives of the Institute. However, their deepening relationship also emphasises social pressures within modern America and the insidious influence of prejudice.

The third thread in the novel lies in that mysterious painting partly seen on the cover. An early character, Thomas J. Scott, is a racing journalist and a hopeful equine portraitist. As he paints Dr Warfield’s horses, he notices how helpful and sensitive the boy is, and does something kind.

“I remembered I’d promised him a painting . . . and as sometimes happens when the stakes are small, the painting came together with an uncommon felicity. I captured the light on that rich bay coat and the intelligent look in the eye. I considered keeping the piece myself. I was glad in the end that I did not, when I saw the look of joy on the boy’s face. It occurred to me then his condition afforded him few possessions he might claim as his own.”

Scott’s painting passes through Jarrett’s family until, in 1954 it becomes the property of Martha Jackson, a New York gallery owner who exhibits bold modern paintings. She has her own secret reason for keeping the small portrait which, in due time, will unlock the equine mystery for Jess and Theo, and act as part of the powerful ending.

Knowing little about gambling or horse racing before reading Horse, I had not realised that equine paintings, such as Stubbs' famous “Whistlejacket”, are an aspect of the business of horse-breeding and were adverts promoting the best bloodlines.

Perhaps, because there are more passionate and personal novels that give a voice to the life on the plantations, Horse does not attempt to offer the reader a close inner experience. Brooks, as a white woman novelist, writes with a distanced third person narrative voice which allows her to expand her themes and also allows her concluding chapters to stand out clearly. In addition, her historical and geographical settings feel convincingly well-researched, whether she is describing families and their great estates, life on the Mississippi or the horrors of the American civil war. I appreciated the contrast between Jarrett’s time, the easy academic life within the museums and galleries and the edgy emotions within Jackson Pollock and the art scene of 50’s New York.

While I did not entirely love Horse, I did love Jarrett as a character, and I enjoyed the care and balance within Brook’s storytelling. I welcomed the world that the novel introduced me to, and the strength of its still-relevant messages. Yes: well worth the read.

Horse is published by Little, Brown.

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