Horse by Geraldine Brooks

There were parts of this book that I loved and then others that were a bit clunky and not nearly so well handled.

This is the story of a groom, Jarret, and a foal that he helped train to become one of the best racers seen in America. Jarret was enslaved and known by the master who owned him so he was Warfield’s Jarret and then Ten Broeck’s Jarret with each chapter announcing this through its title.

The story is told from three perspectives, Jarret’s in the 1850s, Martha Jackson, a gallery owner in the 1950s, and Jess a scientist in 2019 in Washington DC along with Theo an art historian.

The theme of the book is racism and it is very interesting to see it through the three periods of these characters. Jarret’s story is of being sold on along with the horse but never leaving his side if he can help it. He trained the horse but along the way had to dodge horse thieves, owners who beat the horse, civil war and at every turn racism. Black men couldn’t own a horse and race it in Kentucky, he was overlooked at every turn and it wasn’t until he escaped to Canada that he became free and worked in his own right, marrying and having children.

Whilst the horse Lexington is the thread through the three stories, this thread is visible because it is a couple of paintings of the horse, one with Jarret holding it still whilst it was painted by Thomas J Scott. Through a circuitous route, the painting finds it way from Jarret to a woman he used to live with as a gift to help raise her son if she sold it. The painting then ended up with the brother of Martha’s cleaner. Martha offered to value it for them as they wanted to use it to help the brother go to university to become a doctor. From her it ends up in a neighbour’s belongings cleared out by his wife when he died. Theo found it as he was walking outside their house and took it. And so it winds it way through to the Smithsonian where Jess works and where she has just been sent the bones of a horse to be re-articulated and that horse is Lexington himself.

Whilst the racism is built into Jarret’s story, clear and part of his every day life, the depiction of it in Theo’s life seemed a little clunky and a bit lecturing. I can’t quite put my finger on it but things are just described in Jarret’s life where as they are explained in Jess and Theo’s life, making them seem a bit obvious, as if we wouldn’t notice them for what they are. They are all things that could and have happened to Black people in America but seem quite large events whereas the smaller, daily racist actions of people in general might have suited the story better. Here in the present day sections, Brook has chosen to use extremes and it doesn’t suit this story well. Others it would.

I have to admit to not liking animal stories but admiring how they and racism are brought together in this book. Usually, animal stories involve cruelty in some way and I find that really hard to read. I pushed through it in this book but it is in there. A mixed read.

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