Cover of book: Horse

Geraldine Brooks

It is a truth universally acknowledged that journalists start their careers in unexpected places. For Sydney-born Geraldine Brooks it was compiling the horse-racing results for the then Fairfax press. Some decades, five novels and an unexpected lunchtime conversation later, Brooks has made the main character of her new novel a champion American thoroughbred from the mid-19th century.

Lexington was so fast that a mass-produced stopwatch was sold to fans so they could be part of the bay stallion’s race against time itself. His racetrack fame and his handsome looks lured equine artists, who would be paid “fifty or sixty dollars” by “many a horse-owning gentleman … [who’d] grudge to spend half that on a portrait of his wife”.

And, like the best horse this half of the world has seen, Phar Lap, his remains were put in a museum. His skeleton was forgotten for a while, stored in an attic at the Smithsonian. The retrieval and dusting off of his bones leads to the simple title of this novel.

When a scientist, visiting from England, reads the inscription on the attic-stored exhibit, she exclaims to her colleague and host, “Horse! I can’t believe it! I don’t suppose you people have the Mona Lisa stashed somewhere, labeled Smiling Girl?”

Horse has two main settings: the antebellum American South – which returns the American-based author to the milieu of her 2005 Civil War novel March, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction – and Washington, DC, in 2019. The second setting has an Australian connection. Jess, the osteologist – “our expert in skulls and bones” – at the Smithsonian, is Sydney-born. She befriends an art historian, Nigerian–American Theo, the Yale-educated son of diplomats who spent part of his childhood in Canberra and has a cattle dog named Clancy.

The two time periods are connected by Lexington – Jess is rebuilding his skeleton; Theo is writing about his portraits and the exploitation of African–American stablehands – and the Black Lives Matter movement. The author says it was someone talking about Lexington at that aforementioned lunch that planted the idea for the book. “As I began to explore Lexington’s life,” she writes in her afterword, “it became clear to me that this novel could not merely be about a racehorse. It would also need to be about race.”

For this reader, a near-lifelong student of the turf, the racehorse part works best, not least because Lexington was no mere racehorse, as the author notes in an epigraph from Charles E. Trevathan in The American Thoroughbred: “After him there were merely other horses.”

We are taken to the days when horses raced over four miles – twice as long as the Melbourne Cup – and repeated that feat a week later. These sections bustle with page-turning elegance and excitement. The descriptions of Lexington in full flight in body and mind – the latter is a high gamble but successful – show the author paid attention on the racing rounds. He “stretched out like an elastic thing … He ran as a fox does, long, low and level. He charged out ahead and stayed there…” “[T]he horse pushed himself, running for the joy of it.”

The racetrack scenes, mainly in Kentucky with a wonderful side-trip to New Orleans, ignite in colour and movement and are full of villains. I’m not sure there are non-equine heroes in this book, except perhaps the Black groom, Jarret Lewis, who is with Lexington from his foaling until his death at 25. Jarret is enslaved. Like the horse, he is a white man’s property. His father, Harry, who trains the horses, has bought himself out of slavery and he hopes Lexington will do the same for his son. Even so, a Black man cannot own a racehorse.

Lexington, who became North America’s leading sire after his racing career, did have Black stablehands, as his portraits show, but the lack of any record of their lives means Jarret is a fictional character. Many of the other characters, large and small, are taken from history. Jesse James makes an appearance, as do Jackson Pollock and, in a laugh-out-loud moment, MONA founder and multimillionaire from the punt David Walsh.

Brooks connects slavery and 21st-century racism through the lives of Jarret and Theo. First there is casual racism, such as assuming a Black man has stolen your expensive bicycle rather than possessing his own, which is how Jess and Theo first meet.

Then, towards the end, there is a hard-edged sequence that is beautifully written, tragic and yet, in terms of plot, a little contrived, more like an authorial lecture than a work of fiction.

Then again, that is the view of a white reader. As one of Theo’s friends tells Jess with borderline hostility, “It’s not your fault you get to move easy in the world. We just can’t afford to.” Brooks has written a splendid novel about a racehorse. The associated novel about race is admirable but at times feels as if she has too much lead in the saddlebag. 

Hachette, 404pp, $39.99 (hardback)

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 18, 2022 as "Horse, Geraldine Brooks".

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