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Horse by Geraldine Brooks

Updated: Jul 8

Horse is wonderful story telling And it’s more, and in some ways less. I feel there’s something paradoxical about Horse.


First the story. It’s a more-than-dual timeline, but mostly two time periods moving forward in parallel, historical and present day. Each chapter has a title, a place named and a date. If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t read chapter headings you’re going to need to break that habit for this book, or you’ll be hopelessly lost. Even with the signposts I found myself flipping back to check on who was when, something I find much easier in a physical book than in an e-book. It’s something to do with spatial memory.


The historical part runs from 1850 to 1875, so from before the American Civil War until after. Jarret is enslaved, but his father is a free man and a horse trainer in Lexington, Kentucky. Jarret adores horses and one in particular, which he cares for from the moment it is born. This horse will eventually be known as Lexington, a racehorse famous in his day and later famous as a stud stallion. Lexington is temperamental and Jarret, who becomes his groom, is the only person who can calm him.


The present day part tells of Jess, an Australian transplant to Washington DC with a special talent for bones, the sort that are displayed in museums, and of Theo, a post-graduate student who is also a transplant. His heritage is more complicated, his father being American and his mother Nigerian. He, because his parents were diplomats, spent much of his childhood in an English public school.


So, no more about the plot because one of the joys of this book is working out what is going on and how the timelines fit together.


But there is more to say.


In her afterword to the book Geraldine Brooks writes, ‘As I began to research Lexington’s life, it became clear to me that this novel could not merely be about a racehorse; it would also need to be about race.’ This novel has that oft maligned element, a theme, and, like a skeleton being stripped of its flesh for display, the theme emerges as something essential yet disturbing.


Brooks’ characters think about their situation, be they enslaved, emancipated, mixed race or immigrant. She shows how their inner lives are circumscribed, and threatened, by the construct of race. And she shows how threats are realized in a society that has racism woven throughout its social fabric. The construct of race is constantly on everyone’s mind. The characters can’t seem to move a few yards without having to consider it. And the result is deeply shocking.


Courageously writing about race is how Horse is more than a great story about a horse, it’s also why it’s less. Sometimes the bones stick out.


For example, the character of Catherine, an English veterinarian, seems shallow despite carrying a significant element of the plot. Her dialogue often feels like dumps of information and her language unconvincing. She’s there but she’s not there. Yet she’s important, not only for the plot but because she is outside the racist the web that has ensnared both Jess and Theo.


When Theo says, “The slave-holding classes considered enslaved people subhuman. They referred to them as ‘the necessary mudsill’ on which one constructed the edifice of a higher kind of society.” Catherine’s response is, “What a distressing concept… although I’m not sure it’s an order of magnitude worse than the upper-class attitude to the lower classes. I mean, not everything has to be about race does it?” Theo retorts “Perhaps not, when you are White.” Catherine mutters and leaves off the conversation.


This is not how an Oxford-educated woman reacts to an argument. Such a woman can recognize a certain type of shock-tactic when she hears it. She would hear the assertion in that first sentence and agree with it before expanding the conversation. Or maybe she would react angrily to the personal attack. She does not live in America. She has not spent the last few years rethinking her status while being subjected to the steam roller effect of the notion of white privilege. She won’t see where this ‘You are White’ is coming from.


But, is this out of character reaction there so Catherine can say, “Not everything has to be about race”? Is it the author who is saying, ‘Think about all those scenes where it’s been about race? Were those always about race? Here I’ve given you three people and the conversation comes round to racism in America, but none of these three people were born and raised in America. This is not their culture or their heritage.’ So here’s the paradox. The jarring nature of Catherine’s out of character reaction sends the reader out of the novel and into their own thoughts. Just what are those thoughts? That’s down to you.


I won’t go in for any more textual analysis. The story of the horse, Lexington, and the people who connect with him is masterfully told and the way the construct of race pollutes every character is subtle and thought provoking. It was a hard task the author set herself.

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