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The historical novel ‘Horse’ sheds light on real-life racism

Pulitzer winner geraldine brooks’s latest book is a sweeping tale that uses the true story of a famous 19th-century racehorse to explore the roots and legacy of enslavement.

In 2019, a PhD student in art history rescues an oil painting of a racehorse from a pile of discarded stuff on a Georgetown sidewalk, and a zoologist finds a skeleton marked “Horse” in a Smithsonian attic. In 1850, an enslaved boy is present at the birth of a foal. These are the ingredients with which Geraldine Brooks begins her new novel, “Horse,” and, goodness, they are just as beguiling as her fluid, masterful storytelling.

From the beginning, the weave of the narrative is clear: It’s no surprise that the horse in the painting is the same animal whose bones are collecting dust in the Smithsonian and the same again as the newborn foal who will find a devoted, lifelong companion in the boy, Jarret. The horse’s name is Lexington, and he was a real-life racehorse who won six of his seven starts and became a legendary thoroughbred sire whose offspring dominated American racing in the late 19th century. Brooks includes other figures from history: Lexington’s various owners; Thomas J. Scott, a Pennsylvania-born animal painter who served in the Union Army during the Civil War; and the modernist art dealer Martha Jackson. But Brooks’s central characters — Jarret; the art historian Theo; and the zoologist Jess — are invented.

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Jarret is the child of Harry Lewis, a horse trainer who was able to buy his own freedom in antebellum Kentucky. Harry’s employer, Dr. Elisha Warfield, offers to give the colt Lexington to Harry in lieu of a year’s wages so that Harry, if he makes the horse a success, might earn enough to purchase his son. This bargain proves too good to be true. Once Lexington wins his first race, Harry’s ownership gives covetous White horsemen the necessary leverage to take the animal from him. It turns out there is a law forbidding Black people from running horses, and so Dr. Warfield is blackmailed into selling both Lexington and Jarret. The young man and the horse are sent south, eventually to the massive racing operation of Richard Ten Broeck in Louisiana. Of course, the abhorrent and absurd truth is that both Lexington and Jarret are considered livestock, resources to be exploited until they die. Ten Broeck recognizes the value of Jarret’s skill with horses and deep rapport with Lexington and, in what could be mistaken for generosity but is actually just canny exploitation, elevates him to the status of deputy trainer, a promotion that gives Jarret responsibility without true authority.

A century and a half later, Theo and Jess are brought together by Lexington’s remnants: his portrait, his bones. Theo, who is Black, is the child of diplomats, a Nigerian mother and an American father. He grew up in British boarding schools and was a polo star at Oxford before the indignities of racism — from which privilege could not insulate him — drove him from the sport. His interest in the horse portrait is casual at first, then sharpens as he homes in on the presence of Black men in similar works from the era — grooms and trainers — likely to have been enslaved. Jess is White, Australian and an odd duck, fascinated since childhood with the bones of living things. The two begin a tentative relationship, their mutual attraction existing uneasily alongside Jess’s tendency toward oblivious microaggression and Theo’s doubts that she is capable of fully understanding his experience as a Black man.

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Jarret’s story is one of individualism. His dogged betterment of himself and his tenacious devotion to Lexington serve as a private rebellion against the erasure that is slavery. Ultimately the war determines his fate, but unpredictably so. Theo and Jess are also at the mercy of their time, but progress is a complicated proposition. The resolution of their story is saturated with the same rot of injustice that was introduced to this country with slavery and has flourished ever since. In “Horse,” Brooks, who is a meticulous researcher and whose previous novels, including “ People of the Book ” “ Caleb’s Crossing ” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “ March ,” have all been concerned with the past, writes about our present in such a way that the tangled roots of history, just beneath the story, are both subtle and undeniable.

The feeling that pervades is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Horses were cruelly used and discarded by the antebellum horse-racing industry; the same is true of modern racing. Enslaved men were regarded as inherently dangerous and were murdered without consequence according to White whims; police officers kill Black men with impunity still today. The artist Thomas J. Scott, initially sympathetic toward Confederate prisoners, eventually gives up talking to them because they were “lost to a narrative untethered to anything he recognized as true. Their mad conception of Mr. Lincoln as some kind of cloven-hoofed devil’s scion, their complete disregard — denial — of the humanity of the enslaved, their fabulous notions of what evils the Federal government intended for them should their cause fail — all of it was ingrained so deep, beyond the reach of reasonable dialogue or evidence.” If that doesn’t sound familiar, you haven’t been on the internet lately.

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I raced through the novel’s first half and then slowed and slowed as I went on, so worried for what might happen to Jarret and Theo and to Lexington that I could hardly bear to find out. “Horse” is not a grim book, but it did sometimes make me very angry, and it did make me cry. “Horse” is a reminder of the simple, primal power an author can summon by creating characters readers care about and telling a story about them — the same power that so terrifies the people so desperately trying to get Toni Morrison banned from their children’s reading lists.

Maggie Shipstead is the author of “Seating Arrangements,” “Astonish Me,” “Great Circle” and “You Have a Friend in 10A.”

By Geraldine Brooks

Viking. 416 pp. $28

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In ‘Horse,’ Geraldine Brooks Sets a Consideration of Race at the Track

Brooks’s latest novel focuses on two young Black men, and shuttles between the present day and the 19th-century world of horse racing.

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HORSE By Geraldine Brooks 401 pages. Viking. $28.

The title of Geraldine Brooks’s new novel, “Horse,” alludes to Lexington: the real and extraordinary late-19th-century Kentucky bay stallion who drives its plot. The subtext, if not the subtitle, is “Race.” Not for the contests Lexington won, though those are recreated in detail suitable for both the sports and society pages, but for the book’s confrontation of relations between Black and white people over the course of two centuries.

Valuable legacies can disappear, is the underlying message — for years, this celebrity thoroughbred’s skeleton languished at the Smithsonian, shoved in an attic and marked only equus caballus — even as barbaric ones linger.

A wide-ranging practitioner of historical fiction and adventuresome journalism, Brooks has visited the rocky terrain of race before. Her novel “March” (2005) explored the life of the mostly absent father from Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” a chaplain for the Union Army during the Civil War. In The New York Times, Brooks’s similarly accomplished contemporary, Thomas Mallon (a white man), criticized her (a white woman), for populating that book with a number of “slave saints and savants” in supporting roles, calling the result “treacly and embarrassing.” Others disagreed , and “March” went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.

This time, after novels about Judaism , the first Native American to graduate from Harvard and the biblical King David , Brooks focuses on two young Black men, giving them richly layered backgrounds and complicated inner lives (in an afterword, she thanks among others her son Bizu, whom she and her late husband, the author Tony Horwitz , adopted from Ethiopia, for insight into the modern Black experience).

The book opens with Theo, a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Georgetown who pulls a painting of Lexington out of a hostile neighbor’s trash in 2019. In short order, the action zooms back to 1850 and Jarret, a skilled groom whose enslaved father had bought his own freedom but couldn’t afford his son’s.

The character of Jarret was inspired by a fleeting reference in an old issue of Harper’s Magazine, informed by Brooks’s research on enslaved horse trainers, who had — tenuously — more authority and status on the turf than their counterparts in the fields. His progress through the novel is propelled by disquieting transfers of ownership: he comes of age as “Warfield’s Jarret”; is both empowered and imperiled as “Ten Broeck’s Jarret”; and so on, through emancipation. Tenderly devoted to the prize horse first known as Darley, he also tangles warily with Cassius Marcellus Clay, the hotheaded, philandering abolitionist and one of Clay’s daughters, Mary Barr. Mary always seems to be creeping up on Jarret in an organza frock: well-meaning, with an interest that comes to verge on the romantic, but putting him at risk by her very presence.

Part of Brooks’s project, developed in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, is to show that Theo, despite 21st-century autonomy and a privileged background — he’s the son of diplomats, attended Yale and Oxford and has what a friend calls a “Lord Fauntleroy accent” — can never really relax because of his skin color. (To which some readers may respond: “Duh?”) His former polo teammates called him Caca, Sooty and worse. His neighbor flinches when he tries to help her with a shopping cart — “just a White woman, White-womaning,” he thinks, tamping down his anger. And he first meets his new love interest, Jess, when she thinks he’s stealing her expensive bike. Noticing (speaking of treacle) that Theo’s eyes are “the color and luster of maple syrup,” Jess then castigates herself for “what had been no microaggression but blatant racism.”

Their affair, which starts fumblingly and then takes a hard, melodramatic turn, feels like something of a skeleton mount, merely a place where their professional lives can intersect. Here, Brooks has done considerable homework, and deserves, by my lights, a top grade. Jess manages an osteology prep lab without squeam, cleaning animal carcasses with dermestid beetles; and recovers Lexington from the natural history museum’s attic. Theo is inspired to pursue a new dissertation topic after salvaging the equestrian painting, by a minor equestrian artist named Thomas J. Scott (who also intermittently seizes the narrative and embarks, in Brooks’s imagining, on an interracial gay affair in New Orleans).

Brooks’s chronological and cross-disciplinary leaps are thrilling, and mostly seamless, though there can be a lot of exposition in the dialogue. With the all-access passport granted by historical fiction, she even alights daringly, if perhaps a little superfluously, in the circle of Jackson Pollock, right before the artist died while driving drunk with his mistress.

But this is really a book about the power and pain of words, not pictures: the wrong ones Jess says, fearing insensitivity; the “blinking cursor, tapping like an impatient finger” that Theo and all writers face; the archaic ones Brooks summons for verisimilitude, like “jimberjawed” and “clerestory”; the ones Jarret dare not speak. “Words could be snares,” he thinks. “Less of them you laid out there, less likely they could trap you up.” (Or as Aaron Burr put it in “Hamilton”: “Talk less. Smile more.”) And the ones beloved beasts cannot speak.

Call it a prolonged case of post-“Watership Down” stress disorder, but most books with animal themes make me want to run like hell; chances are the creatures are going to suffer or die at the hands of abusers or predators. In “Horse,” though, Lexington is ennobled by art and science, and roars back from obscurity to achieve the high status of metaphor. It’s us human beings who continue to struggle.

Alexandra Jacobs is a book critic and the author of “Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch.” More about Alexandra Jacobs

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Geraldine Brooks

401 pages, Hardcover

First published June 14, 2022

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"Equestrian portrait art of that era was a highly specialized field and only flourished briefly--after the Civil War, photography quickly supplanted it. There were few painters of note. Troye, of course, was the master. According to the database, Scott was his student. It was a small world they moved in--wealthy turf enthusiasts, one recommending his painter to the other."
"Whenever Jarret recalled that first morning in New Orleans, it was the noise and the smell that came back to him most vividly. Through the thicket of ship masts, he glimpsed bright ensigns of every nation fluttering in the slight breeze. Sweating men stacked bales and crates on the crowded dockside. Carefully, he led the horse down the gangway and into a wall of sound and scent--the medley of languages that, later he would be able to distinguish as French and Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, but that first morning blended into a musical blur. The smells were various, pungent: the tang of sassafras, the biscuit aroma of fat and flour roasting together into rich, dark roux, the intoxicating fragrance of jasmine, roses, magnolias and gardenias, and the intense perfumes of the women--old, young, their complexions every shade from linen through honey, pecan, ebony--in expensive fabric or simple calico, clothed and ornamented with more care and style than any women he had ever seen."

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Horse by Geraldine Brooks review – a confident novel of racing and race

The Australian-American author gallops through the life of a famed racehorse in the antebellum south but falters when she reaches modern America

I n a museum laboratory, a young osteologist – a scholar of bones – reassembles the skeleton of a 19th-century racehorse. The animal has spent decades fixed too haughtily upright; a prim parody of a thoroughbred. Rewired, he may run again, if only in the imaginations of those who stare at his bare, beautiful frame.

In her sixth novel, Horse, Geraldine Brooks attempts the same feat on the page – setting loose a history-bound stallion. Her subject is the famed Kentucky thoroughbred Lexington, king of the antebellum racetrack. “A horse so fast that the mass-produced stopwatch was manufactured so his fans could clock times in races that regularly drew more than twenty thousand spectators,” Brooks marvels. “A horse so handsome, that the best equestrian artists vied to paint him.” Lexington was famously virile, too, the greatest sire of his age; the father of dynasties and battle steeds.

But underneath the romance lies a dark inevitability: antebellum horseracing was an industry of white prestige built on the plundered labour of Black horsemen. “As I began to research Lexington’s life, it became clear to me that this novel could not merely be about a racehorse,” Brooks explains in her afterword. “It would also need to be about race.” It’s the kind of solemn and virtuous statement that can make a reader wary; that unmistakable whiff of good intentions.

In green-pastured Kentucky in the early 1850s, an itinerant artist – a painter of rich men’s horses – is struck by the beauty of a white-socked foal, and captures the animal on canvas. Watching him paint is Jarret, an enslaved groom who will tend to the horse until its dying breath. It is the last defiant decade of US slavery, and the boy and the horse will be bought and sold together. “A racehorse is a mirror,” the painter tells Jarret, “and a man sees his own reflection there.”

More than 160 years later, an oil painting of a white-socked horse is dumped on the roadside in Washington DC. It’s salvaged by Theo, a graduate student with an equine fixation. The equestrian art of the antebellum south often includes Black stablemen, and Theo is writing his PhD on the dehumanising equivalences these paintings make between man and beast – the gilt-edged boast of ownership.

Horse moves between Lexington’s record-breaking life and his cultural afterlife; between Jarret’s world and Theo’s. Jarret is denied the dignity of his own name; Theo is the poshly educated son of diplomats; but both are living in policed Black bodies. Horse is a tale of America’s inescapable and ever-braided legacies: the mythic and the monstrous.

Brooks cut her journalistic teeth on the racing beat, and she knows her way around a horse. This book returns the Australian-American novelist to the terrain that won her a Pulitzer prize with March , her 2005 tale of the war-absent father from Little Women. She brings the same archival confidence and sensory flair to the antebellum racetrack. Jarret’s portion of Horse is exactly the novel you’d expect: bloodlines and broodmares; farriers and knackeries; wild gambles, wild gallops and plantation-era grotesqueries. A dollop of civil war valour. And at the centre of it all, love story: a boy and his horse.

It’s when Brooks resurfaces in the near-present that Horse falters. With his elaborate backstory, convenient thesis and issue-prodding love interest, Theo’s story feels machine-tooled. Raised outside the US, he’s as naive as he is worldly – a man on a collision course with American injustice.

But there’s more than didacticism at play, for Lexington’s history is full of serendipities. An original painting of the racehorse was indeed rescued from street garbage, and his skeleton was discovered lurking in the attic of the Smithsonian. It’s possible to connect the stallion to General Ulysses S Grant and to Jackson Pollock’s reckless death. Brooks cannot bear to leave these details out. Who could? And so Horse crowbars its characters into these cosmic accidents. Six degrees of equine.

But with tender precision, Horse shows us history in flux. As Theo researches his abandoned painting, he encounters the devoted boffins who work to enrich the story we tell of the past: archivists, curators, scientists. It’s here that our osteologist makes an appearance, with her lab of flesh-eating beetles and bleached bones. When a skeleton is hung well, she explains, the armature disappears: “A really good mount allow[s] a species to tell its own story.” A really good historical novel does the same thing, letting the past stretch out into a wild and beastly shape. Horse has strong bones – but the struts and wires are showing.

Horse by Geraldine Brooks is published by Hachette on 15 June in Australia ($39.99) and 16 June in the UK, and by PRH in the US

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“Historical fiction” may be one name for Geraldine Brooks’s craft, but that label doesn’t do her novels justice. Her Pulitzer Prize-winner, March (2005) , spotlights the taciturn father from Little Women. A transcendentalist compelled to enter the Union Army, he is a man of ideas struggling to become a man of action. People of the Book (2008) follows a Jewish manuscript from medieval Spain to modern Bosnia through exile, conflict, and genocide. Brooks’s novels don’t just use history as backdrop; they plumb the depths of the past in search of wisdom for the present.

Horse brings together the best parts of Brooks’s earlier work. It combines March ’s focus on the American Civil War with People of the Book ’s multiple narrators. Like March , Horse focuses on a character, while also centering on objects, like People of the Book .

The title refers to the label on a skeleton gathering dust in the Smithsonian’s attic. As it turns out, “Horse” is as much of a misnomer for Lexington, called “the greatest thoroughbred stud sire in racing history,” as “historical fiction” is for Horse. In Washington, D.C. in 2019, Jess, a zoologist, is called to restore Lexington’s newly-identified bones for public display. She collaborates with Theo, an art historian, who finds a painting of a horse in his neighbor’s garbage. This is the premise for Brooks’s latest transhistorical, when-worlds-collide plot.

Jess and Theo’s stories are interspersed with that of Jarret, Lexington’s groom, during the 1850s and 60s. Born into slavery in Kentucky, Jarret bonds with a colt called Lexington, setting out to prove that “all men are equal on the turf or under it” and hoping to win enough at the races to purchase his freedom. Lexington grows famous for his speed and endurance under Jarret’s care, but, by 1854, “the enmity is grown so great that even the turf provides no neutral ground.” Sold, along with Lexington, first to a New Orleans entrepreneur, then back to Kentucky, Jarret watches the Civil War unfold from the South’s elite stables. In 2019, Jess and Theo know nothing about Jarret. Nevertheless, they use the evidence they have to reconstruct his world.

In Horse, Brooks examines what others have overlooked. Like Horse ’s protagonists, she rummages through what looks like junk, searching for treasure. Jess rescues Lexington’s bones and “articulates” them; Theo salvages the painting to restore it. These objects carry traces of the past that need to be studied in order to be understood—and in order for their full stories to be told.

Part Da Vinci Code and part Nickel Boys, Horse draws readers into a historical mystery: what made Lexington so great? If he was so great, why was he forgotten? ( Seabiscuit gets a shoutout, too.) In its search for answers, the novel wavers between awe and indignation. While many of the novel’s characters are historical figures (abolitionist Cassius Clay, art dealer Martha Jackson, Lexington himself), Jarret is just a figure in a painting—the painting of Lexington “led by Black Jarret, his groom” recorded in an artist’s catalogue. A painting that’s now lost.

At the novel’s heart, then, is a more important question: how did we forget about Jarret? The bitter fact of knowing more about the horse than the man is not lost on Brooks. She elevates the history of Black grooms, trainers, and jockeys even as she underscores the disturbing interchangeability of the men with the horses they rode. When the New Orleans horse racing impresario Ten Broek says “this [ … ] is my Jarret. He knows the horse. Follow his advice in every particular, as if his instructions were my own,” Jarret “trie[s] to ignore the dissonant clanging of Ten Broeck’s words. My horse. My Jarret. New grandstands, new barns—did the man just buy up everything he wanted in this world?” This is Horse ’s strength: it depicts dignity and indignity at once. It asks readers to remember the passion and expertise Black men brought to the sport of horse racing and to recognize the violence that kept them out of its official record. As the novel shows, the horse whose legacy is preserved in museums, art galleries, and stud catalogues would not exist if not for the man whose life is irrecoverable except through fiction.

Horse may be better on the past than the present. The novel’s attempts to depict the Black Lives Matter movement and other current events can be clunky. But its spirit of humility and humanity prevails. Words directed at a collector buying Lexington’s painting may as well be directed at Brooks: “I guess you like horses.” Like her, Brooks responds: “It’s far more complicated than that.” Horse shows us just how complicated it is.

Published on September 6, 2022

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Author Interviews

The novel 'horse' is the story of an enslaved man grooming a winning thoroughbred.

Lexington was a winning thoroughbred in the mid-1800's, and the basis of Geraldine Brooks' new novel, "Horse." Scott Simon talks with her about her story.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Lexington was one of the most extraordinary athletes of the 19th century. He happened to be a racehorse. The story of his career is the skeleton, if you please, in which Geraldine Brooks hangs her latest novel. It's a human story that takes us from the time of Jarret Lewis, the enslaved young man who becomes his groom, to the racing grounds of old New Orleans and contemporary scholars in Washington, D.C., who resurrect Lexington with a portrait and with his long-abandoned bones, discovered in the attic of the Smithsonian. Geraldine Brooks' new novel is called "Horse." And the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist of "March" and other bestsellers joins us now from Martha's Vineyard, Mass. Thanks so much for being with us.

GERALDINE BROOKS: It's such a pleasure to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Tell us about Lexington in his prime.

BROOKS: He was the most outstanding horse. He had incredible strength and endurance and blistering speed. He also had a lovely temperament and great courage.

SIMON: Help us understand the extraordinary relationship between Jarret Lewis and Lexington - because Jarret had a different view from the first about training a horse, didn't he?

BROOKS: Well, that's right. So the character of Jarret was suggested to me by a reference to him describing a painting that is missing. And it describes Lexington being led out by, quote, "Black Jarret, his groom." And it's late in the stallion's life. And I tried to learn about who that groom was, but I couldn't find anything about him on the record. But it did lead me to learn about all the incredibly accomplished Black horsemen who were responsible for this racehorse's success. And so I imagined Jarret having a relationship with the horse from the time he was foaled until his late life. And I based that on my own relationship with horses and the incredible understanding that you can have if you can bridge the species divide and win their trust and their affection.

SIMON: There's a point in the story when an owner - and I want to be careful about using the language - I mean a horse owner and a slaveholder suggests that Jarret might have a choice between freedom and Lexington, doesn't he?

BROOKS: Well, there's a lot of tension running through the book because Jarret, for most of the book, is not in command of his destiny. And so at any moment, he can be ripped from his family. He can be ripped from the horse that he loves and has raised. And he can be ripped even from the skill set from which he draws the small amount of agency he has within this brutalizing system. So you're always on edge for him.

SIMON: Yeah. There are two contemporary figures, Theo and Jess. Theo's a art historian from a Nigerian American family and Jess a scientist from Australia. What do they glimpse as they find out about Lexington?

BROOKS: So they're both drawn to the story because they're both the kind of people who want to add their grain to the sandbox of human knowledge. And there are so many questions for Jess. She's an osteo preparator at the Smithsonian, so she deals with getting bones ready for scientists to study their DNA, to measure them, to do comparative work on species. And Theo is intrigued by the lost stories of the Black horsemen who are depicted in the equestrian art of the period.

SIMON: What was the image or glint of information that said to you, this is a novel?

BROOKS: It started just with the story of a horse that was so intriguing, the twists and turns in the horse's racing career. There's great drama in that. And then what happened to the horse during the Civil War - and I was a goner. As soon as I learned that part of the story, I knew it was for me. What I didn't realize until I got into studying the history of the horse and who was responsible for his success was that I couldn't just write about a racehorse. I also had to write about race. I couldn't leave that story in the past, either. It had to come into the present because it's not over.

SIMON: Yeah. And what's the research like, compared with the writing?

BROOKS: I love both. I think I'm lucky in that way (laughter). I think the former newspaper reporter in me absolutely adores the opportunity to get up in other people's business, to get up...

SIMON: Yeah. Well said. Yeah. Geraldine, forgive me for asking - I think some people will wonder, how are you doing?

BROOKS: You know, it's been very hard to lose the love of my life, Tony Horwitz, and he was a big fan of the subject matter because he loves that period of American history so much. And then he was just so suddenly gone. And I know you know something about this because I think you lost your father when you were in your mid-teens, just as...

SIMON: Yeah.

BROOKS: ...My boys did. My boys did. And so, you know, it's been hard for us to find our way as a family. But what we do, our practice, I guess you could call it, has become just being radically grateful for what a great time we had with Tony. And when we talk about him, which we do all the time, almost every story ends with a big laugh because he was the funniest man, and he just made every day like a party.

SIMON: Wow. Well, those laughs will continue. They will warm you. It's been my experience.

BROOKS: I hope so.

SIMON: Geraldine Brooks - her new novel is "Horse." Thank you so much for being with us.

BROOKS: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF KACEY MUSGRAVES SONG, "HIGH HORSE")

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Geraldine Brooks Probes Racing—and Race—in Her New Historical Novel, Horse

The Pulitzer Prize winner explores the unwritten true tale of America’s most famous racehorse—and uses that story to show how far we need to go in confronting systemic racism.

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Don’t let the title fool you; Geraldine Brooks’s Horse is not Black Beauty for grown-ups. Yes, the title character is one of history’s most famous equine celebrities, a foal named Darley, who later became a pop culture phenomenon called Lexington—and was revered as the fastest horse in the world. But first and foremost, Horse is a thrilling story about humanity in all its ugliness and beauty.

Lexington is one of several characters in the book—the rest of them human—based on real-life figures, as Horse is a product of careful research fleshed out with vivid imagination. It’s a technique that has served Brooks well; she earned a Pulitzer Prize for March, which follows the fictional father in Little Women, based in part on the real-life Bronson Alcott. But while the historic detail in the book is impressive, it’s the fictions filling in the blanks where Brooks’s genius truly shines.

Arguably the central character is Jarrett, the enslaved groom who raised Darley from a foal and risks his own life more than once to protect the horse. In her fascinating afterword, Brooks explains that she was inspired to create Jarrett after reading about a missing painting by equestrian artist T.J. Scott, described in an 1870 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine as depicting Lexington being led by “black Jarrett, his groom.” With no further information about the man available, Brooks took his name and created a complex individual, realizing the true scope of Horse. During her research into 19th-century racing, she found, as she writes in her end note, “this thriving industry was built on the labor and skill of Black horsemen, many of whom were, or had been, enslaved…it became clear to me that this novel could not merely be about a racehorse, it would also need to be about race.”

The lost painting features in the book as well, as Brooks imagines a dramatic and violent history for it that connects characters and time periods. In 1954, Martha Jackson, a female dealer in a male-dominated art world, stumbles upon a similar work that is tangentially involved in the death of Jackson Pollock. In 2019, Jess seeks portraits of Lexington to help reshape his skeleton for an exhibit, and Theo, a Lagos-born, Oxford-educated art historian, finds a cast-off horse painting and begins studying equine art through a post-colonial lens. Examining a portrait of a thoroughbred named Richard Singleton alongside several Black grooms, titled Richard Singleton with Viley’s Harry, Charles, and Lew, Theo thinks that the artist “may have portrayed these men as individuals, but perhaps only in the same clinical way that he exactly documented the splendid musculature of the thoroughbred. It was impossible not to suspect some equivalence between the men and the horse: valued, no doubt, but living by the will of their enslaver, submitting to the whip.” He goes on to notice that, “while the horse had two names, the men had only one.”

Horse unfolds in chapters told from various points of view, and each time the reader is reunited with Jarrett, the chapter bears the name of his enslaver, as the groom might have been described in a painting’s title: Warfield’s Jarrett, Ten Broeck’s Jarrett, Alexander’s Jarrett. It’s a device that forces the reader to consider a world in which gifted horses are valued more than human beings. And that’s not the only big question Horse asks. At a research facility studying the declining population of North Atlantic whales, Jess muses on “the artistry and the ingenuity of our own species,” and wonders, “How could we be so creative and destructive at the same time?” But far from being a preachy cautionary tale about man’s inhumanity to man and beast, this novel is a page-turner that reads like a series of mysteries: Who is this horse? Who was his groom? What happened to their shared portrait?

Horse

While those explorations drive the plot, it’s the voices of the different characters, each so distinct, that make the novel as delightful to read as it is thought-provoking. In 2019, Jess thinks, “careers can be as accidental as car wrecks.… Not many girls from Burwood Road in western Sydney got to go to French Guiana and bounce through the rainforest with scorpion specimens pegged across the jeep like so much drying laundry.” In 1854, Jarrett observes that “to be spoken of as livestock was as bitter as a gallnut.” And that same year, the equine painter, gambler, and sometime reporter Thomas J. Scott muses, “Modest winnings, payments for reportage—as ever, paltry and laggard—would not have kept me long in New Orleans, a city whose ample pleasures are a constant tax upon the purse.” The care with which Brooks crafts each character’s voice is a plea to look past the categorical labels and legends with which we describe each other, to truly see the individual. Paired with a compelling plot, the evocative voices create a story so powerful, reading it feels like watching a neck-and-neck horse race, galloping to its conclusion—you just can’t look away.

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New York Times Bestseller

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by Geraldine Brooks ‧ RELEASE DATE: June 14, 2022

Strong storytelling in service of a stinging moral message.

A long-lost painting sets in motion a plot intertwining the odyssey of a famed 19th-century thoroughbred and his trainer with the 21st-century rediscovery of the horse’s portrait.

In 2019, Nigerian American Georgetown graduate student Theo plucks a dingy canvas from a neighbor’s trash and gets an assignment from Smithsonian magazine to write about it. That puts him in touch with Jess, the Smithsonian’s “expert in skulls and bones,” who happens to be examining the same horse's skeleton, which is in the museum's collection. (Theo and Jess first meet when she sees him unlocking an expensive bike identical to hers and implies he’s trying to steal it—before he points hers out further down the same rack.) The horse is Lexington, “the greatest racing stallion in American turf history,” nurtured and trained from birth by Jarret, an enslaved man who negotiates with this extraordinary horse the treacherous political and racial landscape of Kentucky before and during the Civil War. Brooks, a White writer, risks criticism for appropriation by telling portions of these alternating storylines from Jarret’s and Theo’s points of view in addition to those of Jess and several other White characters. She demonstrates imaginative empathy with both men and provides some sardonic correctives to White cluelessness, as when Theo takes Jess’ clumsy apology—“I was traumatized by my appalling behavior”—and thinks, “Typical….He’d been accused, yet she was traumatized.” Jarret is similarly but much more covertly irked by well-meaning White people patronizing him; Brooks skillfully uses their paired stories to demonstrate how the poison of racism lingers. Contemporary parallels are unmistakable when a Union officer angrily describes his Confederate prisoners as “lost to a narrative untethered to anything he recognized as true.…Their fabulous notions of what evils the Federal government intended for them should their cause fail…was ingrained so deep, beyond the reach of reasonable dialogue or evidence.” The 21st-century chapters’ shocking denouement drives home Brooks’ point that too much remains the same for Black people in America, a grim conclusion only slightly mitigated by a happier ending for Jarret.

Pub Date: June 14, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-39-956296-9

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2022

LITERARY FICTION

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THE SECRET CHORD

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THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 2011

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CALEB'S CROSSING

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SEEN & HEARD

Anisfield-Wolf Book Award Winners Are Revealed

by Kristin Hannah ‧ RELEASE DATE: Feb. 6, 2024

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

A young woman’s experience as a nurse in Vietnam casts a deep shadow over her life.

When we learn that the farewell party in the opening scene is for Frances “Frankie” McGrath’s older brother—“a golden boy, a wild child who could make the hardest heart soften”—who is leaving to serve in Vietnam in 1966, we feel pretty certain that poor Finley McGrath is marked for death. Still, it’s a surprise when the fateful doorbell rings less than 20 pages later. His death inspires his sister to enlist as an Army nurse, and this turn of events is just the beginning of a roller coaster of a plot that’s impressive and engrossing if at times a bit formulaic. Hannah renders the experiences of the young women who served in Vietnam in all-encompassing detail. The first half of the book, set in gore-drenched hospital wards, mildewed dorm rooms, and boozy officers’ clubs, is an exciting read, tracking the transformation of virginal, uptight Frankie into a crack surgical nurse and woman of the world. Her tensely platonic romance with a married surgeon ends when his broken, unbreathing body is airlifted out by helicopter; she throws her pent-up passion into a wild affair with a soldier who happens to be her dead brother’s best friend. In the second part of the book, after the war, Frankie seems to experience every possible bad break. A drawback of the story is that none of the secondary characters in her life are fully three-dimensional: Her dismissive, chauvinistic father and tight-lipped, pill-popping mother, her fellow nurses, and her various love interests are more plot devices than people. You’ll wish you could have gone to Vegas and placed a bet on the ending—while it’s against all the odds, you’ll see it coming from a mile away.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2024

ISBN: 9781250178633

Page Count: 480

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2023

FAMILY LIFE & FRIENDSHIP | GENERAL FICTION | HISTORICAL FICTION

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THE FOUR WINDS

by Kristin Hannah

THE GREAT ALONE

BOOK TO SCREEN

DEVOLUTION

by Max Brooks ‧ RELEASE DATE: June 16, 2020

A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

Are we not men? We are—well, ask Bigfoot, as Brooks does in this delightful yarn, following on his bestseller World War Z (2006).

A zombie apocalypse is one thing. A volcanic eruption is quite another, for, as the journalist who does a framing voice-over narration for Brooks’ latest puts it, when Mount Rainier popped its cork, “it was the psychological aspect, the hyperbole-fueled hysteria that had ended up killing the most people.” Maybe, but the sasquatches whom the volcano displaced contributed to the statistics, too, if only out of self-defense. Brooks places the epicenter of the Bigfoot war in a high-tech hideaway populated by the kind of people you might find in a Jurassic Park franchise: the schmo who doesn’t know how to do much of anything but tries anyway, the well-intentioned bleeding heart, the know-it-all intellectual who turns out to know the wrong things, the immigrant with a tough backstory and an instinct for survival. Indeed, the novel does double duty as a survival manual, packed full of good advice—for instance, try not to get wounded, for “injury turns you from a giver to a taker. Taking up our resources, our time to care for you.” Brooks presents a case for making room for Bigfoot in the world while peppering his narrative with timely social criticism about bad behavior on the human side of the conflict: The explosion of Rainier might have been better forecast had the president not slashed the budget of the U.S. Geological Survey, leading to “immediate suspension of the National Volcano Early Warning System,” and there’s always someone around looking to monetize the natural disaster and the sasquatch-y onslaught that follows. Brooks is a pro at building suspense even if it plays out in some rather spectacularly yucky episodes, one involving a short spear that takes its name from “the sucking sound of pulling it out of the dead man’s heart and lungs.” Grossness aside, it puts you right there on the scene.

Pub Date: June 16, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-2678-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Feb. 9, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

GENERAL SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY | GENERAL THRILLER & SUSPENSE | SCIENCE FICTION | SUSPENSE | GENERAL SCIENCE FICTION | SUSPENSE

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WORLD WAR Z

by Max Brooks

Devolution Movie Adaptation in Works

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book review horse

White Author, Black Paragons

When writing across cultural divides flattens characters

illustration of open book with person seeing an incomplete reflection of themselves on page, on pink background

I t’s 2019 in Washington, D.C. , and Theo is changing his art-history dissertation after finding a painting of a horse in his neighbor’s giveaway pile. He is 26 years old, a Black Londoner (his mother is Yoruba, his father Californian) and a former star polo player. He left the sport for academia because of relentless racist harassment, and now studies stereotypes of Africans in British painting. The working title for his dissertation is Sambo, Othello, and Uncle Tom: Caricature, Exoticization, Subalternization, 1700–1900 . He jogs with his dog for exercise, careful to wear his Georgetown shirt because “his favorite run took him through lily-white Northwest Washington and Daniel, his best friend at Yale, had instructed him that a Black man, running, should dress defensively.” Because he’s from the U.K., he may not understand all the nuances of American racism, but he understands enough. When the lady across the street, from whom he got the horse painting, flinches as he approaches to help her, he feels “the usual gust of anger” and takes a deep breath, saying to himself: “Just a White woman, White-womaning.”

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Theo might be chagrined to find himself a protagonist in Horse , Geraldine Brooks’s latest work of historical fiction, which braids his story with the narrative of Jarret, an enslaved groom of the horse in the 19th-century painting Theo finds. For one, Theo is skeptical of white artists taking on Black subjects. The original hypothesis of his dissertation is that the Africans in British portraits were rendered less as people than as objects: “His argument mirrored Frederick Douglass’s caustic essay , arguing that no true portraits of Africans by White artists existed; that White artists couldn’t see past their own ingrained stereotypes of Blackness.”

This is a self-conscious—and bold—inclusion for a novel with not one but two young Black male protagonists written by a 66-year-old white Australian woman. Brooks is a skilled journalist and an acclaimed novelist, and Horse is not her first foray into historical fiction set in part during the American Civil War. Her novel March is narrated primarily by the father in Little Women , and tells the story of Mr. March’s years as a chaplain for the Union Army. That novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. Neither is this her first time writing across cultural divides. Her first nonfiction book, Nine Parts of Desire (1994) , was about the “hidden world of Islamic women.” Her 2011 novel, Caleb’s Crossing , is about a young white Puritan girl’s friendship with Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk , a character inspired by a Wampanoag man of the same name who was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, in 1665.

This kind of venture has become trickier in the past 10 years. The publishing world has been racked by overdue debate about cultural appropriation and whether and how white authors should write characters from other racial or ethnic backgrounds. Five years after Brooks published Caleb’s Crossing , the white American writer Lionel Shriver gave a notorious keynote speech— briefly donning a sombrero —at a Brisbane literary festival, ranting about the “clamorous world of identity politics” and the threat she felt it posed to literature: “The kind of fiction we are ‘allowed’ to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.” Retorts and replies followed. “ It is possible to write about others not like oneself , if one understands that this is not simply an act of culture and free speech, but one that is enmeshed in a complicated, painful history of ownership and division,” the novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen observed. More recently, the blockbuster turned critical conflagration American Dirt (a novel about migrant trauma, for which its white author was paid a seven-figure advance ) set off months of heated articles. Some pointed out that immigrants remain under-published and underpaid for their own stories in the American media market; others objected to the implication that any identity-based limits should be placed on a fiction writer’s license.

In putting Douglass’s argument so early in the book—on page 57—Brooks signals to us that she enters her latest project knowingly. She’s read up on the Discourse. A gauntlet has been thrown—white artists can’t do justice to Black subjects—and she will take it up. Despite her evident efforts, the book does not turn out to be the counterexample she might have hoped.

H orse started with a real horse: Lexington, who was one of the great racehorses of the 19th century and a prolific sire. When Lexington died, his skeleton became an exhibit but was later forgotten in the attic of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History . Brooks, a horsewoman herself, grew fascinated with the painter Thomas J. Scott, who did several portraits of Lexington, and she was especially curious about one of Scott’s portraits that remains missing. A description of that painting in a July 1870 issue of Harper’s magazine describes Lexington being led by “black Jarret, his groom.” Nothing else is known about the real Jarret, and Horse grew out of Brooks’s imaginings of the life he might have lived. She had wanted to write about horses, she admits in her afterword. But as she researched horse racing in the antebellum South, “it became clear to me that this novel could not merely be about a racehorse; it would also need to be about race.”

The structure of the novel is poly-vocal, occupying a loose, floating third person as its short chapters jump among its cast of characters. The story is bounded historically by 2020 in Washington, D.C., where Theo’s find is identified as a lost 19th-century portrait of Lexington, and the 1850s at several southern horse-breeding farms, where Jarret, a gifted and reserved young horse trainer, develops a spiritual, even psychic connection with a newborn foal named Darley, who will later become famous as Lexington. The boy and the horse become best friends and deeply bonded partners. “That horse about the only one thing I care for,” Jarret declares. Though his father, also a horse trainer, has bought his own freedom, Jarret remains enslaved, and his story line is fraught with vulnerability: Jarret and Lexington are sold together from one wealthy landowner to another, to another.

Occasionally, the book swerves to the 1950s in New York, where Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner make an appearance: Their friend, an art dealer named Martha Jackson, acquires one of the lost Lexington paintings from her maid, who seems to have inherited it from an ancestor connected to Jarret. (This third era’s plot, which is also based in historical fact, is notably less developed than the other two.) Sometimes Jarret’s perspective dominates in the novel; other times Scott’s or Theo’s vantage prevails—or that of Jess, a young white Australian woman who’s pursuing her fascination with zoological research at the Smithsonian in 2019; or that of Mary, the young daughter of the white emancipationist Cassius Clay and a frequent presence at the Meadows, the farm where Jarret and his father work. Intermittently, Brooks serves up a mix of multiple viewpoints over the course of a single chapter.

But in spirit, the book belongs to Jarret and Theo, with complementary foils in the form of the two young white women. (While there are several Black female characters in the book, none is granted complex interiority.) In 2019, Theo begins to date Jess, despite some ambivalence. In 1850, Mary likes to hang around the barns and talk to Jarret (who is two years older) while he works. Brooks has taken pains to make both women flawed: Whereas Jarret and Theo are carefully dressed, meticulous, and possessed of “impeccable manners,” these women are often careless, unkempt, emotionally fragile—and racist without quite knowing it. Jess and Theo meet because she assumes he’s stealing her bike. She’s then so embarrassed by her behavior that she tells him she found the incident traumatic. (“Typical, Theo thought. He’d been accused, yet she was traumatized.”) When Mary is angry, she reminds Jarret that he’s enslaved, and then feels hurt later when she tells him that she considers them friends and he is too incredulous at the idea to reciprocate.

Brooks clearly attempts to demonstrate self-awareness, to preemptively deflect any criticism that she has favored the characters whose life experience most resembles her own—but the dynamic she creates between Theo and Jess and between Jarret and Mary flattens all the characters. Theo and Jarret are described, at every turn, as exemplary, socially and spiritually. They are handsome, tall, gifted, and educated (Jarret takes an opportunity to learn how to read). Animals instinctively trust them (Theo and his dog are exquisitely attuned). They are constantly swallowing their rage. They are always patiently explaining something. Where others stumble, they are steady. Theo tells Jess at one point that he wants to help his old-lady neighbor even if she’s racist, because “ ‘whatever she might be, it doesn’t mean that I won’t do what I know to be right.’ Jess sighed, defeated, and smiled at him. ‘You’re just a better person than me, I guess.’ ”

Theo is a better person than Jess, no doubt, but Brooks grants Jess something that she denies Theo—and to a degree Jarret. Jess gets to fail; Jess gets to change. By contrast, Theo is static. Sometimes he reads like a caricature: “He was his own man long before any of his peers even realized that was an option. He’d embraced life as a rootless loner, at home in the world but belonging nowhere in particular. Comfortable with a wide range of people, close to very few.” He remains angry but patient, smart, gentlemanly, and gentle to the end.

Jarret, the most rounded of the many characters who take turns narrating Horse , changes less than you would expect given that the story tracks him from adolescence into his late 30s. His spiritual evolution is condensed into two formative episodes. In the first, he is saved by Mary and her father from an ill-conceived escape attempt, and he learns thereafter to control his anger and work within the constraints of his enslavement. The second leap forward—which is presented as his real moral maturation—comes when he is briefly forbidden to care for Lexington and is sent to labor in the fields, where he is whipped.

Startlingly, this is framed as a blessing:

He conceived, in those hard days, a renewed gratitude toward his father, who had endured hardship to rise to a measure of dignity that had extended its protective cloak over Jarret’s childhood. He learned, in those fields, what he had been spared. He felt a new understanding for the folk who bore it, and an admiration for those brave enough to risk everything to run away from such a life. An empathy grew in him. He began to watch people with the sensitive attention he’d only ever accorded his horses … Even as his world contracted and pressed in upon him, in equal measure his heart expanded.

When Jarret finally reunites with Lexington and leaves that plantation, he reflects that “he wasn’t sorry to have seen what he’d seen, and learned what he learned. Not just the book learning. He felt larger in spirit. There was a space in his soul for the suffering of people. He resolved to take account of their lives, the heavy burdens they carried.”

These passages call to mind the history of white people insisting that whippings under chattel slavery were an experience of moral training upon which the enslaved might reflect with sanguine gratitude—a history that Brooks is aware of but nevertheless echoes here. Jarret, an emotional teenager who doesn’t seem to lack empathy in the first place, is turned into a saint, floating somewhat above the action.

I keep thinking about Parul Sehgal’s elegant panning of American Dirt , in which she joins the novelist Hari Kunzru in arguing that “imagining ourselves into other lives and other subjectives is an act of ethical urgency.” Transracial authorial imagining, she writes, is a profound undertaking. “The caveat is to do this work of representation responsibly, and well.” Brooks’s attempt is made earnestly, but not well. In keeping with the character construction, the plot itself veers toward formula. Horse relies on ungainly cliff-hangers to pull the reader from chapter to chapter. (In one, Jess inspects Lexington’s skeleton in 2019 and concludes, “Something had happened to this horse when it was alive. Something dreadful.”) The romance is bland. (“Was it the wine, or was she becoming infatuated with this man?”) The details occasionally inspire a flinch (describing an enslaved young man as a “dusky youth”), and the moments when Brooks addresses racism more directly can read as self-conscious and pedantic. (“Look. It’s not your fault you get to move easy in the world,” Theo’s friend Daniel tells Jess after an act of violence. “We just can’t afford to.”)

Brooks is an accomplished writer, and many of her gifts are evident amid the clumsiness of the overall effort. The relationship between Jarret and Lexington is intimate and compelling. When they are briefly separated, the uncertainty of their reunion feels like an existential crisis. Brooks has a talent and passion for research that is fully expressed here—she writes beautifully about the anatomy of horses and the delicate work of “articulating” their skeletons, arranging every bone in its proper place. The descriptions of 19th-century horse racing, when the animals were bred differently and raced much longer tracks, are thrilling. Brooks has attended with equal care to the quotidian details of each era (corn pone in the antebellum South, bebop for Jackson Pollock, mid-century-modern furniture for Theo).

I read to the end wanting Horse to right itself, to be one of those books that achieve the creative and ethical intersubjectivity that signals great fiction. Brooks gives Jarret and Theo just enough spark to make us wish she’d also given them a more deeply imagined, nuanced, and substantial portrayal. Each ends as a trope: one a man who triumphs against all odds, the other a martyr. Brooks’s sympathies are evidently with them, and so are ours. But sympathy seems like an inadequate achievement in a project like this, which takes as its subject the worst consequences of white Americans’ failure to recognize the full humanity of Black people. Sympathy has a way of falling short, aesthetically as well as politically—it is a frail substitute for the knotty, vital insight that can emerge from sustained immersion in another psyche, another soul. If readers feel sorry for Theo and Jarret without really needing to believe in them as whole beings, what exactly do their portraits accomplish?

This article appears in the July/August 2022 print edition with the headline “A White Author Fails Her Black Characters.”

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About Horse

“Brooks’ chronological and cross-disciplinary leaps are thrilling.” — The New York Times Book Review “ Horse isn’t just an animal story—it’s a moving narrative about race and art.” — TIME “ A thrilling story about humanity in all its ugliness and beauty . . . the evocative voices create a story so powerful, reading it feels like watching a neck-and-neck horse race, galloping to its conclusion—you just can’t look away.” — Oprah Daily Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award · Finalist for the Chautauqua Prize · A Massachusetts Book Award Honor Book  A discarded painting in a junk pile, a skeleton in an attic, and the greatest racehorse in American history: from these strands, a Pulitzer Prize winner braids a sweeping story of spirit, obsession, and injustice across American history Kentucky, 1850 . An enslaved groom named Jarret and a bay foal forge a bond of understanding that will carry the horse to record-setting victories across the South. When the nation erupts in civil war, an itinerant young artist who has made his name on paintings of the racehorse takes up arms for the Union. On a perilous night, he reunites with the stallion and his groom, very far from the glamor of any racetrack.    New York City, 1954 . Martha Jackson, a gallery owner celebrated for taking risks on edgy contemporary painters, becomes obsessed with a nineteenth-century equestrian oil painting of mysterious provenance.   Washington, DC, 2019 . Jess, a Smithsonian scientist from Australia, and Theo, a Nigerian-American art historian, find themselves unexpectedly connected through their shared interest in the horse—one studying the stallion’s bones for clues to his power and endurance, the other uncovering the lost history of the unsung Black horsemen who were critical to his racing success.   Based on the remarkable true story of the record-breaking thoroughbred Lexington, Horse is a novel of art and science, love and obsession, and our unfinished reckoning with racism.

Listen to a sample from Horse

Also by geraldine brooks.

The Secret Chord

About Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks is the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel March and the international bestsellers Caleb’s Crossing, People of the Book, and Year of Wonders. She has also written the acclaimed nonfiction works Nine Parts of Desire and Foreign Correspondence. Born and… More about Geraldine Brooks

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Praise for Horse : “Brooks’ chronological and cross-disciplinary leaps are thrilling . . . [ Horse ] is really a book about the power and pain of words . . . Lexington is ennobled by art and science, and roars back from obscurity to achieve the high status of metaphor.” — The New York Times Book Review “[A] sweeping tale . . . fluid, masterful storytelling . . . [Brooks] writes about our present in such a way that the tangled roots of history, just beneath the story, are both subtle and undeniable . . . Horse is a reminder of the simple, primal power an author can summon by creating characters readers care about and telling a story about them—the same power that so terrifies the people so desperately trying to get Toni Morrison banned from their children’s reading lists.” —Maggie Shipstead, The Washington Post “In her thrilling new novel Horse , Geraldine Brooks moves back and forth between the 19th century and the near present with the same practiced ease she displayed in her 2008 epic People of the Book . . . Brooks [has an] almost clairvoyant ability to conjure up the textures of the past and of each character’s inner life . . . Her felicitous, economical style and flawless pacing carries us briskly yet unhurriedly along. And the novel’s alternating narratives, by suspending time, also intensify suspense.” — Wall Street Journal  “Every character is carefully and believably explored, including Lexington, the horse, an excellent racehorse and one of the best sires, ever, whose closest relationship is with his enslaved caretaker and exercise rider, whose insights into Lexington are spectacular. There is plenty of drama, given the era (1850s), but Brooks handles it perfectly. She also reveals a lot about racing art and biological science. Best horse book I’ve ever read, including all of my own.” —Jane Smiley, The New York Times Book Review “[A] deft novel . . . create[s] a picture of the artistic, athletic, and scientific passions that horses can inspire in humans.” — The New Yorker “ Horse isn’t just an animal story—it’s a moving narrative about race and art.” — TIME “[ Horse is] set in contemporary times as well as the antebellum era and during the Civil War, but every story line is so pertinent to the issues of the day.” —Beth Macy, bestselling author of Raising Lazarus , in The New York Times “A thrilling story about humanity in all its ugliness and beauty . . . while the historic detail in the book is impressive, it’s the fictions filling in the blanks where Brooks’ genius truly shines . . . The care with which Brooks crafts each character’s voice is a plea to look past the categorical labels and legends with which we describe each other, to truly see the individual. Paired with a compelling plot, the evocative voices create a story so powerful, reading it feels like watching a neck-and-neck horse race, galloping to its conclusion—you just can’t look away.” — Oprah Daily “A confident novel of racing and race . . . with tender precision, Horse shows us history in flux . . . the book returns the Australian-American novelist to the terrain that won her a Pulitzer Prize with March , her 2005 tale of the war-absent father from Little Women . She brings the same archival confidence and sensory flair to the antebellum racetrack.” — The Guardian  “This is historical fiction at its finest, connecting threads of the past with the present to illuminate that essentially human something . . . Calling all horse girls: This is the story of the most important racehorse you’ve never heard of, but it’s also so much more than that.” — Good Housekeeping  “A testament to the intelligence and humanity of animals, a stinging rebuke of racist and abusive humans, and a study of how the past gets recorded, remembered, and remade . . . anyone who ever grew up loving horses, anyone who dearly loves an animal, will find a cornucopia of riches in this novel.” — Boston Globe “This heart-pounding novel about a famous antebellum champion thoroughbred named Lexington and his talented, enslaved trainer circles two tracks, one historical, one contemporary, to highlight the ongoing scourge of racism in America.” — Christian Science Monitor “Brooks is an accomplished writer . . . [She] has a talent and passion for research that is fully expressed here—she writes beautifully about the anatomy of horses and the delicate work of ‘articulating’ their skeletons, arranging every bone in its proper place. The descriptions of 19th-century horse racing, when the animals were bred differently and raced much longer tracks, are thrilling.” — The Atlantic “ Horse mingles the past with the present, and history melds with well-informed invention . . . Brooks crafts an exceptionally sensitive portrayal of an enslaved groom and his special bond with Lexington.” — Smithsonian Magazine “ Horse glows . . . engrossing, masterful . . . Brooks makes each setting come alive . . . [N]ot the least of the lessons of Horse is an understanding of the redemptive power of art.” — St. Louis Post-Dispatch “[F]ew authors can claim the range of Geraldine Brooks . . . What truly sets her work apart from many others, however, is the rigorous and extensive nature of her research […] which shines through on every page. Readers will not only enjoy Brooks’s well-told tales but will also likely learn something new along the way . . . The end result is a deliciously dense, character-rich exploration of the world of horse racing that still manages to make some stinging observations about the modern-day state of race in America.” — Paste “[Y]ou won’t be able to contain yourself while reading this elegant story about three generations of people inspired by the story of America’s greatest racehorse . . . This is a novel about love, anger, passion, and justice—unbridled and bursting.” — LitHub “Brooks is such a sharp pleasure to read . . . her research is meticulous, but she wears it lightly. And she writes supple, vigorous prose . . . she sees a universal condition that transcends the boundary lines of time and place . . . in short, she operates one of the best time machines around.” — Garden & Gun “With exceptional characterizations, Pulitzer Prize–winner Brooks tells an emotionally impactful tale . . . [The] settings are pitch-perfect, and the story brings to life the important roles filled by Black horsemen in America’s past. Brooks also showcases the magnificent beauty and competitive spirit of Lexington himself.” — Booklist (starred review) “Brooks probes our understanding of history to reveal the power structures that create both the facts and the fiction . . . [She] has penned a clever and richly detailed novel about how we commodify, commemorate, and quantify winning in the United States, all through the lens of horse racing.” — Library Journal (starred review) “[A] marvelous novel. Brooks structures the book like a mystery . . . Through Jarret’s story, the author reveals the unique and indispensable role Black trainers and jockeys played in the pre-Civil War South . . . Equestrian or no, readers will appreciate Brooks’s invitation to linger awhile among beautiful and graceful horses, to see the devotion they engendered in her characters.” — Shelf Awareness “A fascinating saga based on the true story of a famous 19th-century racehorse . . . Brooks’s multiple narratives and strong character development captivate, and she soars with the story of Jarret.” — Publishers Weekly “[Brooks] demonstrates imaginative empathy […] and provides some sardonic correctives to White cluelessness . . . Brooks skillfully […] demonstrate[s] how the poison of racism lingers. Contemporary parallels are unmistakable . . . Strong storytelling in service of a stinging moral message.”  — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)  “[A] sweeping exploration of racial injustice.”  — Electric Literature Praise for Geraldine Brooks: “Brooks is a master at bringing the past alive . . . in [her]skillful hands the issues of the past echo our own deepest concerns: love and loss, drama and tragedy, chaos and brutality.” —Alice Hoffman, The Washington Post “[Brooks] makes a masterly case for the generative power of retelling . . . [her] real accomplishment is that she also enables readers to feel the spirit of the place.” — The New York Times “There’s something bordering on the supernatural about Geraldine Brooks. She seems able to transport herself back to earlier time periods, to time travel. Sometimes, reading her work, she draws you so thoroughly into another era that you swear she’s actually lived in it. With sensory acuity and a deep and complex understanding of emotional states, she conjures up the way we lived then . . . enrapturing.” — The Boston Globe

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Horse: A Novel

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Geraldine Brooks

Horse: A Novel Hardcover – June 14, 2022

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Georgetown, Washington, DC

The deceptively reductive forms of the artist's work belie the density of meaning forged by a bifurcated existence. These glyphs and ideograms signal to us from the crossroads: freedom and slavery, White and Black, rural and urban.

No. Nup. That wouldn't do. It reeked of PhD. This was meant to be read by normal people.

Theo pressed the delete key and watched the letters march backward to oblivion. All that was left was the blinking cursor, tapping like an impatient finger. He sighed and looked away from its importuning. Through the window above his desk, he noticed that the elderly woman who lived in the shabby row house directly across the street was dragging a bench press to the curb. As the metal legs screeched across the pavement, Clancy raised a startled head and jumped up, putting his front paws on the desk beside Theo's laptop. His immense ears, like radar dishes, twitched toward the noise. Together, Theo and the dog watched as she shoved the bench into the teetering ziggurat she'd assembled. Propped against it, a hand-lettered sign: FREE STUFF.

Theo wondered why she hadn't had a yard sale. Someone would've paid for that bench press. Or even the faux-Moroccan footstool. When she brought out an armful of men's clothing, it occurred to Theo that all the items in the pile must be her dead husband's things. Perhaps she just wanted to purge the house of every trace of him.

Theo could only speculate, since he didn't really know her. She was the kind of thin-lipped, monosyllabic neighbor who didn't invite pleasantries, much less intimacies. And her husband had made clear, through his body language, what he thought about having a Black man living nearby. When Theo moved into Georgetown University's graduate housing complex a few months earlier, he'd made a point of greeting the neighbors. Most responded with a friendly smile. But the guy across the street hadn't even made eye contact. The only time Theo had heard his voice was when it was raised, yelling at his wife.

It was a week since the ambulance had come in the night. Like most city dwellers, Theo could sleep right through a siren that Dopplered away, but this one had hiccuped to sudden silence. Theo jolted awake to spinning lights bathing his walls in a wash of blue and red. He jumped out of bed, ready to help if he could. But in the end, he and Clancy just stood and watched as the EMTs brought out the body bag, turned the lights off, and drove silently away.

At his grandmother's house in Lagos, any death in the neighborhood caused a flurry in the kitchen. As a kid visiting on school holidays, he'd often been tasked with delivering the steaming platters of food to the bereaved. So he made a stew the next day, wrote a condolence card, and carried it across the street. When no one answered the door, he left it on the stoop. An hour later, he found it back on his own doorstep with a terse note: Thanks but I don't like chicken. Theo looked down at Clancy and shrugged. "I thought everyone liked chicken." They ate it themselves. It was delicious, infused with the complex flavors of grilled peppers and his homemade, slow-simmered stock. Not that Clancy, the kelpie, cared about that. In the no-nonsense insouciance of his hardy breed, he'd eat anything.

The thought of that casserole made Theo's mouth water. He glanced at the clock in the corner of his laptop. Four p.m. Too early to quit. As he started typing, Clancy circled under the desk and flopped back down across his instep.

These arresting compelling images are the only known surviving works created by an artist born into slavery enslaved. Vernacular, yet eloquent, they become semaphores from a world convulsed. Living Surviving through the Civil War, forsaking escaping the tyranny of the plantation for a marginalized life in the city, the artist seems compelled to bear witness to his own reality, paradoxically exigent yet rich.

Awful. It still read like a college paper, not a magazine article.

He flipped through the images on his desk. The artist confidently depicted what he knew-the crowded, vibrant world of nineteenth-century Black domestic life. He had to keep the text as simple and direct as the images.

Bill Traylor, born enslaved, has left us the only

A movement across the street drew his eye up from the screen. The neighbor was trying to move an overstuffed recliner. It was teetering on its side on the top step as she struggled to keep a grip on it.

She could use help. He did a quick personal inventory: Shorts on, check. T-shirt, check. Working in his un-air-conditioned apartment, Theo would sometimes spend the whole day in his underwear, forgetting all about his dŽshabillement until confronted by the quizzical gaze of the FedEx guy.

He reached the other side of the street just as gravity won, prising the chair from her grip. He jumped up the step and body-blocked it. Her only acknowledgment was a grunt and a quick lift of her chin. She bent down and grabbed the underside of the chair. Theo hefted an armrest. Together, crabwise, they shuffled to the curb.

The woman straightened, pushing back her thin, straw-colored hair, and rubbing her fists into the small of her back. She waved an arm at the ziggurat. "Anything you want . . ." Then she turned and ascended the steps.

Theo couldn't imagine wanting anything in this sadness-infused pile of discards. His apartment was sparsely furnished: a midcentury-modern desk and a Nelson sofa acquired at a thrift store. The rest of the available space was filled mostly with art books, shelved on scavenged planks and milk crates he'd spray-painted matte black.

But Theo, the son of two diplomats, had been raised by the commandment that bad manners were a mortal sin. He had to at least pretend to look. There were some old paperbacks stuffed into a beer carton. He was always curious about what people read. He reached down to check the titles.

And that was when he saw the horse.

Smithsonian Museum Support Center, Maryland

Jess was seven when she dug up the dog. He'd been dead a year. She and her mum had buried him with ceremony, under the flowering red gum in the backyard, and they'd both cried.

Her mother wanted to cry again when Jess requested large Tupperware containers for the bones she'd just exhumed. Generally, Jess's mother was the kind of parent who would let her daughter set the house on fire if she thought it could teach something about carbon and oxygen. But she was stricken with a stab of anxiety: was digging up a beloved pet and macerating its corpse a sign that your child had psychopathic tendencies?

Jess tried her best to explain that she'd dug up Milo because she loved him, and that's why she had to see what his skeleton looked like. Beautiful, as she knew it would be: the swoop of the rib cage, the scoop of the eye sockets.

Jess loved the interior architecture of living things. Ribs, the protective embrace of them, how they hold delicate organisms in a lifelong hug. Eye sockets: no artisan had ever made a more elegant container for a precious thing. Milo's eyes had been the color of smoky quartz. When Jess touched a finger to the declivities on either side of his delicate skull, she could see those eyes again: the kind gaze of her earliest friend, avid for the next game.

She grew up on one of the dense streets of liver-brick bungalows that marched westward with Sydney's first growth spurt in the 1900s. Had she lived in a rural place, she might have exercised her fascination on road-killed kangaroos, wombats, or wallabies. But in inner Sydney, she was lucky to find a dead mouse, or perhaps a bird that flew into a plate-glass window. Her best specimen was a fruit bat that had been electrocuted. She found it on the nature strip under the power lines. She spent a week articulating it: the papery membrane of the wing, unfolding like the pleated bellows of an accordion. The metatarsal bones, like human fingers, but lighter-evolved not to hold and grasp, but to fan the air. When she was done, she suspended it from the light fixture in her bedroom ceiling. There, stripped clean of all that could readily decay, she watched it fly forever through endless nights.

Over time, her bedroom became a mini natural history museum, filled with skeletons of lizards, mice, birds, displayed on plinths fashioned from salvaged wire spools or cotton reels, and identified with carefully inked Latin tags. This did not endear her to the tribe of teenage girls who inhabited her high school. Most of her classmates found her obsession with necrotic matter gross and creepy. She became a solitary teen, which perhaps accounted for her high place in the state in three subjects when the final public exam results were published. She continued to distinguish herself as an undergrad and came to Washington on a scholarship to do her master's in zoology.

It was the kind of thing Australians liked to do: a year or two abroad to take a look at the rest of the world. In her first semester, the Smithsonian hired her as an intern. When they learned she knew how to scrape bones, she was sent to do osteo prep at the Museum of Natural History. It turned out that she had become extremely skilled from working on small species. A blue whale skeleton might impress the public, but Jess and her colleagues knew that a blue wren was far more challenging to articulate.

She loved the term "articulate" because it was so apt: a really good mount allowed a species to tell its own story, to say what it was like when it breathed and ran, dived or soared. Sometimes, she wished she'd lived in the Victorian era, when craftsmen competed to be the best at capturing movement-a horse rearing required an absolute balance in the armature, a donkey turned to scratch its flank demanded a sculptor's sense of curvature. Making these mounts had become a craze among wealthy men of the time, who strove to produce specimens dedicated to beauty and artistry.

Contemporary museums had scant place for that. Mounting bones destroyed information-adding metal, removing tissue-so very few skeletons were articulated. Most bones were prepped, numbered, and then stored away in drawers for comparative measurement or DNA sampling.

When Jess did that work, her nostalgia for the craftsmanship of the past faded, overtaken by her fascination with the science. Every fragment told a story. It was her job to decode them and help scientists extract the testimony from each fossilized chip. The specimens might have come to the museum as the product of dumb luck or the result of days of exacting scientific endeavor. A hobbyist might have stumbled upon a mammoth's tibia uncovered by the lashings of a winter storm. Or a paleontologist might have collected a tiny vole's tooth after weeks of painstaking soil sifting. Jess made her labels on a laser printer and included GPS coordinates for where the specimen had been found. Past curators left a more personal mark, their handwritten cards in sepia-toned ink.

Those nineteenth-century preparators had plied their craft ignorant of DNA and all the vital data it would one day yield. It thrilled Jess to think that when she closed the drawer on a newly filed specimen, it might be opened in fifty or a hundred years by a scientist seeking answers to questions she didn't yet know how to ask, using tools of analysis she couldn't even yet imagine.

She hadn't meant to stay in America. But careers can be as accidental as car wrecks. Just as she graduated, the Smithsonian offered her a four-month contract to go to French Guiana to collect rainforest specimens. Not many girls from Burwood Road in western Sydney got to go to French Guiana and bounce through the rainforest with scorpion specimens pegged across the jeep like so much drying laundry. Another offer followed: Kenya, to compare contemporary species on Mount Kilimanjaro with those gathered by Teddy Roosevelt's expedition a hundred years earlier.

At the end of that trip, Jess was packing her few possessions, ready to go home to get on with what she still considered her real life, when the Smithsonian offered her a permanent position, managing their vertebrate Osteology Prep Lab at the Museum Support Center in Maryland. It was a brand-new facility and the job vacancy was unexpected. The manager who had designed the lab had been struck down by a sudden allergy to frass, the soft, dusty excrement of dermestid beetles. Those beetles were the preferred and best means of bone cleaning, so being unable to work with them without breaking into hives signaled the need for a change of occupation.

The Smithsonian's nickname was "the Attic of America." Support was the attic's attic: a sprawling twelve miles of storage that housed priceless scientific and artistic collections. Jess had thought she wouldn't want to work out in the suburbs, far from the public face of the museum. But when she walked down the vast connecting corridor known as "the street," linking the zigzag of metal-sheathed, climate-controlled buildings in which all kinds of science took place, she knew she'd arrived at the epicenter of her profession.

After her interview she and the director walked across a verdant campus flanked by the botany department's greenhouses. He pointed out a newly built storage pod, looming windowless above the greenhouses. "We just opened that one, to house the wet collection," he said. "After 9/11, we realized it wasn't prudent to have twenty-five million biological specimens in combustible fluids crammed in a basement a couple of blocks from the Capitol. So now they're here."

The Osteo Prep Lab was farther on, in a building of its own, tucked off at the edge of the campus nearest the highway. "If you get, say, an elephant carcass from the National Zoo, it's pungent," the director explained, "so we sited your lab as far from everyone else as possible."

Your lab. Jess hadn't thought of herself as ambitious, but she realized she badly wanted this responsibility. Inside, the lab gleamed: a necropsy suite with a hydraulic table, a two-ton hoist, double bay doors large enough to admit a whale carcass, and a wall of saws and knives worthy of a horror movie. It was the largest facility of its kind in the world, and a far cry from her makeshift lab in the laundry room on Burwood Road.

She loved working there. Every day brought something new in a flow of specimens that never stopped. The latest arrival: a collection of passerines from Kandahar. The birds had been roughed out in the field, most of the feathers and flesh removed. Jess's assistant, Maisy, was bent over the box of little bundles, carefully tied so none of the tiny bones would be lost.

  • Print length 416 pages
  • Language English
  • Publisher Viking
  • Publication date June 14, 2022
  • Dimensions 6.24 x 1.28 x 9.26 inches
  • ISBN-10 0399562966
  • ISBN-13 978-0399562969
  • See all details

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A thrilling story about humanity in all its ugliness and beauty... — Oprah Daily

Product details

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Viking; First Edition (June 14, 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 416 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0399562966
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0399562969
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 1.3 pounds
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 6.24 x 1.28 x 9.26 inches
  • #8 in Animal Fiction (Books)
  • #295 in American Literature (Books)
  • #455 in Literary Fiction (Books)

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About the author

book review horse

Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks is the author of the novels The Secret Chord, Caleb's Crossing, People of the Book, March (which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2006) and Year of Wonders, recently optioned by Olivia Coleman. She has also written three works of non-fiction: Nine Parts of Desire, based on her experiences among Muslim women in the mideast, Foreign Correspondence, a memoir about an Australian childhood enriched by penpals around the world and her adult quest to find them, and The Idea of Home:Boyer Lectures 2011. Brooks started out as a reporter in her hometown, Sydney, and went on to cover conflicts as a Wall Street Journal correspondent in Bosnia, Somalia, and the Middle East. She now lives on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts with two sons, a horse named Valentine and a dog named Bear.

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Horse: A Novel

  • By Geraldine Brooks
  • Reviewed by Patricia Schultheis
  • June 28, 2022

A sweeping look at race — and racing — in America.

Horse: A Novel

Horse by Geraldine Brooks, winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for March , is a sprawling roman à clef covering nearly 170 years of American history, stretching from antebellum Kentucky to present-day Washington, DC. Thoroughbreds provide the unifying element for this far-reaching narrative, but horses and the complex culture surrounding them are only devices for Brooks to explore her fundamental subject: race and its corrosive influence on our nation’s foundation and cancerous impact on society today.

Told from the perspective of six characters, Horse interweaves the story of the Black equestrians who made their white masters fabulously wealthy with those of contemporary young professionals struggling to form relationships despite racial microaggressions and misunderstandings.

By far, the most compelling narrative is that of Jarret, an enslaved boy in Kentucky, whom Brooks describes as being “slow to master human speech, but he could interpret the horses: their moods, their alliances, their simple wants, their many fears. He came to believe that horses lived with a world of fear, and when you grasped that you had a clear idea how to be with them.”

Jarret understands the fear horses have because he, too, is wholly dependent on the whims of others for food and shelter. And like horses, he can be beaten or sold at any moment. In the antebellum South, horses and their enslaved attendants are commodities. Nothing more.

But the night he helps his father, a free man, with the birth of a white-footed foal, Jarret’s life begins to change. “He makes me feel — hopeful,” Jarret says of the animal. “Like the future gone matter more than it did the day before he come.” Eventually, the foal is named Lexington and goes on to become a legendary racer and an even more legendary sire.

Jarret and the horse develop a profound bond that enables the young man to gain some agency over his own life. As Lexington is sold, then sold again, Jarret is sold along with him, changing from Warfield’s Jarret to Ten Broeck’s Jarret to Alexander’s Jarret. Although he has no last name, Jarret gradually becomes literate, perceptive, disciplined, canny, and empathetic. Once freed, he becomes Jarret Lewis, no one’s man but his own.

Observing Jarret’s transformation from boy to man is Thomas J. Scott, an itinerant artist and writer hired by wealthy patrons to paint their horses. Scott’s narrative is the only one told in the first person — through his diaries — and Brooks does a wonderful job capturing the artist’s obsequious tone and cool detachment toward the moneyed gentry who pay him. Over the course of many years, Scott paints several pictures of Lexington. An early, rough one he gives to young Jarret. Later, Scott gives Jarret another one, although it, too, is imperfect.

Scott’s paintings form the basis for the chapters covering the 1950s and 2019, but Brooks, who so beautifully captures the nuanced and constant sense of threat permeating the Old South, fails to achieve similar tension with her contemporary characters. Martha Jackson, for instance, who buys one of Scott’s paintings from her maid, remains too slight to engross the reader. Yes, she does ultimately bequeath the work to the Smithsonian (an action that impacts later developments in Horse ), but a subplot involving her interactions with Jackson Pollock is needlessly distracting.

The more successful modern-day thread involves Jess, a white Australian conservator at the Smithsonian, and Theo, a Black doctoral student in art history. An African American in the sense that his father was American and his mother is Nigerian, Theo is a liminal figure, unencumbered by an ancestry of enslavement, yet impacted by today’s prejudice.

“Meet cute” might describe his initial collision with Jess, but “contrived” may be more accurate. Both ride expensive, blue Trek CrossRip bikes; both have lived in Canberra and know what a Kelpie is. (It’s an Australian sheepdog.) With this much in common, what could go wrong? Apparently, a lot.

Yet despite mixed messages and microaggressions, Jess and Theo begin a fitful relationship that might border on cliché if not for the fact that Brooks’ subject isn’t love. It’s race in America. And her gripping, tragic conclusion to Horse exemplifies the truth of Faulkner’s memorable assertion: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Patricia Schultheis is the author of Baltimore’s Lexington Market , published by Arcadia Publishing in 2007, and of St. Bart’s Way , an award-winning story collection published by Washington Writers’ Publishing House in 2015. Her latest book is A Balanced Life , published by All Things That Matter Press in 2018.

Support the Independent by purchasing this title via our affliate links: Amazon.com Powell's.com Or through Bookshop.org

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Horse by Geraldine Brooks

  • Publication Date: January 16, 2024
  • Genres: Fiction , Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0399562974
  • ISBN-13: 9780399562976
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Book Club Questions for Horse by Geraldine Brooks

By: Author Luka

Posted on Last updated: October 1, 2023

Categories Book Club Questions

This post may contain affiliate links. Read more here .

Book club questions for Horse by Geraldine Brooks delve into the complexities of American history and the human spirit.

The novel explores the bond between a discarded painting, a skeleton in an attic and the greatest racehorse in American history, Lexington. Following the journey of an enslaved groom, a Union soldier and a gallery owner, the story delves into the themes of obsession, injustice, and the impact of human actions on the world.

As the story unfolds, readers are faced with thought-provoking questions about the nature of self-discovery, the cost of betrayal, and the role of fate in shaping our lives. The characters are richly developed and the storytelling is powerful, leaving a lasting impression long after the final page is turned.

Horse is a must-read for book clubs and literature enthusiasts alike. Based on true events, the novel is a Pulitzer Prize winner and will make readers reflect on their own experiences and the impact of human actions on the world.”

The novel’s exploration of the war and its impact on the individuals and society will make readers reflect on their own experiences and the impact of human actions on the world. This is a must-read for book clubs and literature enthusiasts alike, as the novel’s storytelling will leave a lasting impression long after the final page is turned.

Below you will find the discussion guide for The Horse, the detailed synopsis of the book, and The Horse book club questions for your use in discussion with your book clubs. Also, don’t forget to read my book recommendations below the questions!

The Synopsis

A discarded painting in a junk pile, a skeleton in an attic, and the greatest racehorse in American history: from these strands, a Pulitzer Prize winner braids a sweeping story of spirit, obsession, and injustice across American history.

Kentucky, 1850 . An enslaved groom named Jarret and a bay foal forge a bond of understanding that will carry the horse to record-setting victories across the South. When the nation erupts in civil war, an itinerant young artist who has made his name on paintings of the racehorse takes up arms for the Union. On a perilous night, he reunites with the stallion and his groom, very far from the glamor of any racetrack. 

New York City, 1954 . Martha Jackson, a gallery owner celebrated for taking risks on edgy contemporary painters, becomes obsessed with a nineteenth-century equestrian oil painting of mysterious provenance.

Washington, DC, 2019 . Jess, a Smithsonian scientist from Australia, and Theo, a Nigerian-American art historian, find themselves unexpectedly connected through their shared interest in the horse—one studying the stallion’s bones for clues to his power and endurance, the other uncovering the lost history of the unsung Black horsemen who were critical to his racing success.

Based on the remarkable true story of the record-breaking thoroughbred Lexington,  Horse  is a novel of art and science, love and obsession, and our unfinished reckoning with racism.

In love with literature? Try audio books or writing classes for free for 30 days.✨

Book Club Questions for Horse

The following book club questions have been tailored to this book’s specific reading experience. ✨

1.  On page 28 (Theo, Georgetown, Washington, DC, 2019), Theo reflects that depictions of horses are among the oldest art humans created. The book’s epigraphs reflect on the significance of Lexington — in his day, an even bigger celebrity than Seabiscuit or Secretariat. Discuss the enduring human fascination with horses. Do they move you more than other animals? If so, why?

2.  Theo and Jess are both obsessed with their rarefied fields of expertise. Does the author manage to convey why these unusual careers can be so compelling? If so, how?

3.  Jarret’s connection with horses is presented as stronger than his bonds with people. How does his love for and dedication to Lexington help or hamper his coming of age and his transformation over the course of the novel?

4.  Horseracing in the mid-19th century was very different to its modern iteration. What surprised you? Do you think horseracing today takes adequate care for the well-being of equines?

5.  On p. 71 (Thomas J. Scott, The Meadows, Lexington, Kentucky, 1852), Scott writes, “[We] who think we are above enslaving our fellow man are corrupted. Only show us absolute agency over the apt and the willing, and suddenly we find the planters’ obduracy that much less odious. I must guard against the rank seductions of this place.” How does the author draw out the similarities and differences between Northern and Southern attitudes in this era through Thomas J. Scott, a practiced observer who moves between the regions?

6.  Several historical figures appear in the novel, among them the emancipationist newspaper publisher Cassius Clay and his daughter, the suffragist Mary Barr Clay. What are Cassius Clay’s arguments for emancipation to the Warfield family? Do you see the roots of what would become Mary Barr Clay’s passion for the women’s suffrage movement in the way she is portrayed in her youth? What are their respective strengths and limitations? How do novels make historical figures come alive for us beyond what we might find in a work of nonfiction? 

7.  Martha Jackson was a real American gallery owner and art collector. Discuss her portrayal in HORSE and what her relationship to the painting of Lexington conveys about her character. What does her storyline contribute to the novel’s themes? What did her chapters reveal to you about America in that era, and did you notice any similarities between the art world of the mid-20th century and the horse racing economy of a century prior?

Bonus Book Club Questions for Horse

These are my bonus book club questions that take a different approach on analyzing certain themes of the book.

8.  Referring to the Civil War on p. 87 (Jess, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC, 2019), Jess says, “Not my war […] Unless you call Australia the  very  Deep South.” Theo is also not American. Nevertheless, they’re both forced to reckon with the legacy of slavery — particularly Theo, who encounters racism in his daily life. How does this affect their relationship? What does the novel reveal about the way history shapes our present moment?

9.  Discuss Theo and Jess’ relationship. What do you think attracts them to one another despite their differences? What do they learn from each other?

10.  Examine Jess’ conversation with Daniel in the aftermath of what happens to Theo at the end of the novel. What did you make of Daniel’s assessment of the situation? Do you share his point of view?

I hope you will enjoy discussing my book club discussion questions for Horse by Geraldine Brooks! Have fun analyzing the themes of the story with your book clubs, and let me know what are your thoughts!

Additional Recommendations

Hope you enjoyed these original book club and discussion questions for Horse by Geraldine Brooks!

Here are some more of my book club recommendations:

Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng

our missing hearts novel

Twelve-year-old Bird Gardner lives a quiet existence with his loving but broken father, a former linguist who now shelves books in a university library. His mother Margaret, a Chinese American poet, left the family when he was nine years old without a trace. Bird knows to not ask too many questions, stand out too much, or stray too far. For a decade, his family’s life has been governed by laws written to preserve “American culture” in the wake of years of economic instability and violence. To keep the peace and restore prosperity, the authorities are now allowed to relocate children of dissidents, especially those of Asian origin, and libraries have been forced to remove books seen as unpatriotic.   Bird has grown up disavowing his mother and her poems; he doesn’t know her work or what happened to her, and he knows he shouldn’t wonder. But when he receives a mysterious letter containing only a cryptic drawing, he is pulled into a quest to find her. His journey will take him back to the many folktales she poured into his head as a child, through the ranks of an underground network of librarians, into the lives of the children who have been taken, and finally to New York City, where a new act of defiance may be the beginning of much-needed change.   Our Missing Hearts  is an old story made new, of the ways supposedly civilized communities can ignore the most searing injustice. It’s a story about the power—and limitations—of art to create change, the lessons and legacies we pass on to our children, and how any of us can survive a broken world with our hearts intact.

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

demon_copperhead_book

From the acclaimed author of  The Poisonwood Bible  and  The Bean Trees,  a brilliant novel that enthralls, compels, and captures the heart as it evokes a young hero’s unforgettable journey to maturity

Set in the mountains of southern Appalachia,  Demon Copperhead  is the story of a boy born to a teenaged single mother in a single-wide trailer, with no assets beyond his dead father’s good looks and copper-colored hair, a caustic wit, and a fierce talent for survival. Relayed in his own unsparing voice, Demon braves the modern perils of foster care, child labor, derelict schools, athletic success, addiction, disastrous loves, and crushing losses. Through all of it, he reckons with his own invisibility in a popular culture where even the superheroes have abandoned rural people in favor of cities.

Many generations ago, Charles Dickens wrote  David Copperfield  from his experience as a survivor of institutional poverty and its damages to children in his society. Those problems have yet to be solved in ours. Dickens is not a prerequisite for readers of this novel, but he provided its inspiration. In transposing a Victorian epic novel to the contemporary American South, Barbara Kingsolver enlists Dickens’ anger and compassion, and above all, his faith in the transformative powers of a good story.  Demon Copperhead  speaks for a new generation of lost boys, and all those born into beautiful, cursed places they can’t imagine leaving behind.

Thank you for reading my book club questions and as always, happy reading! ❤️

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BookBrowse Reviews Horse by Geraldine Brooks

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by Geraldine Brooks

Horse by Geraldine Brooks

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Historical artifacts related to the legendary thoroughbred racehorse Lexington serve as the backdrop to this dual timeline novel reckoning with racial inequality in America.

Winner: 2022 Best Fiction Award . Geraldine Brooks creates a powerful backstory for 19th-century thoroughbred racehorse Lexington, weaving a rich tapestry of historical and current-day narratives that aptly reflect how the legacy of slavery still ripples through America. Horse truly does offer something for every reader. Brooks seamlessly weaves fact and fiction, past and present, to tell the story of the remarkable Lexington and examine race in America. The real-life Lexington was not only known for his breathtaking speed and agility on the track, but also for his equally talented progeny. Brooks engineers a plausible biography for the horse, filling in the blanks with intriguing research as she traces the history of thoroughbred racing, including the impact of Black jockeys and the Civil War on the industry. This is complemented by compelling contemporary narratives that explore the complex dynamics of race and relationships today. The novel begins in 2019 with the dueling narratives of Theo, a Nigerian graduate student of the arts working on his thesis, and Jess, a white scientist working for the Smithsonian. Theo salvages a painting of a horse from his neighbor's garbage; Jess unearths horse bones discarded in a neglected attic space. These discoveries bring the characters together and a romantic relationship ensues, complicated by their divergent racial heritage. Jess is Australian and relatively new to the US, and is naive to the myriad concessions and considerations Theo must make due to the color of his skin. Alternately, while a victim of racism both subtle and overt, Theo purposefully tries to look beyond race. At one point, he discloses that he was judged by his former girlfriend as "insufficiently steeped in an experience of American Blackness" to date a Black woman. Despite Jess's protestations that race is not an issue, she first meets Theo when she mistakenly believes he is stealing her bicycle. Jess and Theo's narratives are entrancing enough to stand on their own as an engrossing read. Brooks is deft at characterization; more than once I found myself wanting to meet Jess or Theo at a local coffee shop so I could hear more of their stories. On the heels of Jess's and Theo's narratives comes Jarrett's, or as Brooks notably titles these sections, "Warfield's Jarrett," reflective of Dr. Warfield's ownership and underscoring Jarrett's status as a slave. Jarrett's story, beginning in 1850, narrates Lexington's time as a foal and Jarrett's deep and abiding connection with the horse. Jarrett is the son of trainer Harry Lewis, and is sold along with Lexington to various affluent, white horse owners. His tale traverses the early halcyon days of thoroughbred racing (as Jarrett becomes Lexington's primary caretaker and ultimately his trainer), through a daring escape from Confederate clutches during the Civil War, and Lexington's later days as a successful stud. The historic underpinnings of the work are as spellbinding as the characters. Whether Brooks is chronicling the history of thoroughbred racing, exploring the impact of the Civil War on African American jockeys, or detailing the nuances of American equestrian art, it is all equally engrossing. Likewise, each character's backstory is transfixing. The novel ends with a resounding and shocking crescendo that demands an examination of race in America today. Horse will buoy your soul, break your heart, educate your mind and leave you waiting for Brooks's next work. It is just that spectacular.

book review horse

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Beyond the Book:    Black Jockeys: The Foundation of American Horse Racing

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A horse and cart went past. I see. I believe in them. They grow dark. The horse and cart went past. But the horse had a horse. The cart had a cart. They led their own selves large from shadows along the acacias. And now it’s hard for me to believe in the horse and cart.

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The best luxury hotels for horse lovers

From elegant estates with stunning trail rides to five-star retreats offering unrivalled polo and racing experiences, we've rounded up splendid stays for equestrians of all levels

Headshot of Kim Parker

Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying, “There’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man.” And with the UK and Ireland boasting some of the finest equestrian experiences in the world right now, there’s never been a better time to indulge in a little horse therapy to make you feel great, no matter what your riding ability. And when it’s combined with an award-winning spa, top-tier dining and some of the most beautiful scenery available (without the need for a long-haul flight) the proposition becomes even more tempting.

Ours is a distinctly horsey kingdom, with historic estates built upon centuries of riding, racing and equine sports. There are untold acres of stunning countryside primed for picturesque hacks, manicured lawns ideal for polo chukkas (or eating scones whilst watching a game from the side-lines) and some of the most passionate (and patient) riding instructors in the business, who dedicate their lives to the welfare of our most noble animal companions.

Whether you’re hoping to try your hand at riding for the first time or looking to further your existing skills with expert tuition (plus access to excellent massages to ease your muscles afterwards), here are some of our very favourite equestrian escapes.

Five must-visit luxury hotels for horse lovers

Best for… race lovers: ellenborough park hotel, gloucestershire.

ellenborough park

Fans of a flutter will adore this splendid 15th-century manor hotel and 90-acre estate, just a stone’s throw from Cheltenham’s famous racecourse. Indeed, it’s possible to watch horses speeding along the gallops through a pair of binoculars as you breakfast in the oak-panelled restaurant, though the hotel also has a direct path through its grounds to the stadium and can also organise chauffeur-driven Bentleys to take racegoers to the meets in style.

Following an extensive refurbishment, just in time for Cheltenham’s prestigious Gold Cup steeplechase this spring, Ellenborough’s 61 bedrooms have been sympathetically refreshed by local designer, Ilze Reinke, with inspiration taken from original Nina Campbell wallpapers as well as the natural hues of the Cotswolds. Historic elements still abound, though: the 1485 front door bears bullet holes gained during the Civil War, and Tudor roses still adorn many of its stained-glass windows.

If you like a more private stay, the newly launched one-bedroom Lodge is like having your own, personal Cotswolds cottage for the night. In the main hotel, suites are named after illustrious thoroughbreds, making them a favourite with racehorse owners and superstar jockeys. If you’ve had a successful day at the races, book into the imposing Istabraq suite, named for the legendary three-time winner of Cheltenham’s Champion Hurdle race, with its luxurious four-poster bed, enormous marble bathroom and spectacular views. There’s even a secret passageway into the library, which can be transformed into a private dining room should you want to celebrate your winnings in serene seclusion.

Otherwise, a post-race evening is best spent in the hotel’s cosy but well-appointed spa, where a combination of jacuzzi bubbles and expert massage will soothe even the most jangled nerves. You could even opt for the Spa Garden Retreat, which is inspired by the Chelsea Flower Show and includes private access, champagne and a tempting array of treatments. Afterwards, slip into one of the comfy banquettes in the newly refitted Horse Box Brasserie and tuck into the seasonal menu (the roasted turbot with saffron and fennel and salted caramel tart are both winning options), or sip a classic cocktail – expertly blended by the hotel’s team of mixologists – at the lively bar.

If you fancy taking your enthusiasm to the next level, the hotel offers exclusive tours of nearby Jackdaws Castle, home of the renowned racing trainer Jonjo O’Neill. Guests can take personal tours of one of the most sophisticated coaching centres in Europe and watch thoroughbreds at work on the gallops, or being pampered in their own therapeutic pool and solarium. Should the thrill of ownership prove too much of a temptation, you can even buy shares in young, up-and-coming racehorses. Who knows, perhaps the next Cheltenham champion could be your very own?

From £299 per night (inc. VAT) for a 'Cosy Double' room, including breakfast. VIP tours of Jojo O’Neill stables cost £250pp

Best for… life-changing equine therapy: Lucknam Park, Wiltshire

lucknam park, luxury horse hotels

Those after a horsey break with a difference should run, not walk, to Lucknam Park. The expansive, 500-acre estate is home to 35 glossy-flanked horses, as well as a Michelin-starred restaurant, tennis courts, a croquet lawn, two pools and an award-winning spa. The most unique aspect of this low-key luxury spot, however, is it's unique Equine Connect experience. These therapeutic workshops aim to bring a feeling of centeredness and calm by harnessing a horse’s natural instincts and methods of communication – think ‘the Horse Whisperer’, with distinctly lovelier results.

Guests must learn to use their body language and breath to connect with one of the hotel’s own stallions, relating this back to their own life experiences and relationships. It’s often profoundly moving (tears aren’t uncommon), so a soothing post-session lunch in the light, airy Brasserie is a welcome chance to unpack, as is a stroll through the classical walled gardens, or an aromatic massage. Combined with a gentle yoga lesson in the tranquil Studio, which overlooks the hotel’s own arboretum (perfect for forest bathing), this one-of-a-kind retreat is designed to restore both mind and body unlike anything else.

The Reconnect Retreat Getaway package costs from £1,392 per room, based on a one-night stay for two in a Country Room Lucknam Park, Colerne, Chippenham, Wiltshire, SN14 8AZ

Best for…incredible trail-rides: Ashford Castle, County Mayo, Ireland

ashford castle

The snow-capped mountains of Connemara and the shores of Lough Corrib serve as a spectacular backdrop to Ashford Castle, which offers some of the finest trail-riding in Ireland.

Shaped by successive generations of aristocratic Irish families, such as the Guinnesses, the medieval fortress boasts a 350-acre estate (including an ancient forest criss-crossed by sheltered paths) and 20 stables housing beautiful local breeds such as Irish Draught horses, Connemara ponies and Cobs, making it the ideal place to saddle up and escape into the wild.

Lessons and hacks can be booked by the hour, though if the weather holds, you’ll want to disappear on an all-day guided hack through the magnificent countryside, returning only to warm yourself with tea and cakes in the Connaught Room, catch a film in the cinema, or indulge in an eight-course tasting menu (with local ingredients such as fresh scallops and lobster) in the stately George V dining room, before settling in for a blissful night in one of the hotel’s 82 antique-filled bedrooms.

Private trail rides from €100 per adult. €750 (approx. £646) per night for a double room on a bed and breakfast basis

Ashford Castle , CongCounty Mayo, Ireland , F31 CA48

Best for… the ultimate all-round experience: Gleneagles, Perthshire

gleneagles, luxury horse hotels

As Scotland’s original ‘glorious playground’, Gleneagles is about far more than just golf. The current titleholder of ‘Best Hotel in the World’ was simply made for country pursuits all kinds, including riding. No matter what your ability, the hotel’s fully equipped Equestrian School can provide a qualified coach to boost your skills and a well-mannered mount to suit your needs. From dressage to show jumping and even behind-the-scenes tours of the impeccable stables (overseen by Hettie and Chelsea, the cheeky Shetland ponies), there’s certainly something for everyone. Experienced adrenalin junkies will find the cross-country experience particularly hard to resist, with over 60 different jump fences (some up to a metre high) spread out over 80 acres of picturesque grounds – more than enough space for a thrilling gallop or two. Back indoors, Gleneagles has ten different dining rooms and bars (including Scotland’s only two Michelin-starred restaurants), an outstanding spa with botanical treatments derived from the Perthshire countryside and over 200 bedrooms decorated with exquisite silks and local textiles, so equestrians will be just as spoilt for choice when it comes to winding down. Rooms from £575pn, based on two sharing, including breakfast. Riding lessons from £105 for 45 mins, cross-country lessons from £165 for 90 minutes

Gleneagles Hotel , The, Auchterarder, Scotland, PH3 1NF

Best for… perfect polo: Coworth Park, Berkshire

coworth park

Coworth Park may have become famous for hosting Edward VII when he attended Royal Ascot, but it is with the other ‘sport of kings’ that the mansion house and its immaculate grounds have really made their mark. Just an hour from London, the Georgian pile is the only British hotel with its own world-class polo fields, where high-profile competitive matches are played each summer. Here, lessons are conducted by the experienced professionals at Guards Polo Academy (one of the world’s leading schools, coaching everyone from novices to would-be Adolfo Cambiasos), with a range of bespoke tutorials to get your mallet swing up to scratch. If you prefer to watch polo from a comfortable chair on the sidelines (and who could blame you, when there’s rosé champagne and the very best cream tea on offer?), Coworth’s guests have access to an entire schedule of open fixtures, so you never have to miss a goal. Off the pitch, Coworth has 500 acres of listed parkland to explore and a Michelin-starred restaurant run by the renowned chef Adam Smith. The five-star spa, with an extensive menu of pampering treatments using esteemed skincare brands like Ishga, Valmont and Germaine de Capuccini, would make for a seriously indulgent afternoon trip – if you can possibly tear yourself away from the saddle for a moment. A private one-hour polo lesson costs £195. Rooms from £545 per night (inc. VAT).

Coworth Park , Blacknest Road, Ascot, Berkshire SL5 7SE

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From the New York Times bestselling creator of Mind MGMT and co-writer of BR ZRKR with Keanu Reeves comes a multi-dimensional cosmic odyssey presented in a pulp magazine-sized format! Robin is a big city reporter, embedded with US Marines heading to the hostile pocket universe called Terminus. Ten minutes in, the entire marine squad is wiped out and she has to survive (and report) on her own. Terminus is full of cosmic wonders-and sci-fi "gods" that are in the middle of a political power struggle. The language is alien, and the politics are deadly. Can she survive long enough to figure out what's going on and get home to tell the story? more

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If You Find This I'm Already Dead #1 is a fantastic debut that feels like a more modern version of classic sci-fi pulp. If you're a fan of Flash Gordon, this is a comic that's an absolute get and if you just like good comics this is one that shouldn't be missed. Read Full Review

If You Find This, I'm Already Dead #1 is an engrossing introduction to a sci-fi odyssey without an ounce of fat on its bones. Read Full Review

Comic readers looking for an explosive sci-fi story are in for a treat with this issue. The entire creative team has put together a raw story but one that isnt shy from showing the violence that press often covers. Read Full Review

McDaid delivers on the thrills with the art in this issue. The imagery is vibrant and beautifully detailed. Read Full Review

book review horse

Plot The US Army obtained a portal to a Pocket Universe of the Quantum Realm and militarized the place for five years, this new world is incomprehensible as violent. For the first time they send a civilian with a team of 5 army commandos to this planet they call Terminus, this civilian is the New York Times war reporter named Robin Reed, but as soon as they arrive at the base in five minutes they are attacked by beings. unknown and eliminate the entire team, so Robin must survive in a strange world without being able to communicate with anyone. The soldiers who attacked the commandos are part of an authoritarian government that wants to control this world, it is perhaps a universal constant that Robin quickly reco gnizes, the oppressors and the oppressed. Spectacular beginning of a saga that mixes action, science fiction, war drama and mystery in a dizzying and brilliant narrative rhythm. Art It has many textures and strokes with a retro volume that gives you a feeling of reading old war comics from the 1960s, but at the same time we see futuristic technology that refreshes everything, it is undoubtedly the art necessary to tell this story. Summary Robin Reed is a reporter who is going to face a war beyond her imagination. Exciting story in a perfect balance of science fiction and war drama more

book review horse

This was a really great start. It's art and world was a joy to look at. The story was not advanced, but done in a way that had a lot of hits.

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This Underrated Agatha Christie Miniseries Is a Mystery With a Supernatural Twist

As if murder wasn't enough!

The Big Picture

  • The Pale Horse stands out among Agatha Christie's works with its dark tone and supernatural elements.
  • The series effectively teases its supernatural elements, with the protagonist's skepticism gradually giving way to belief.
  • The show uses circumstantial evidence and suspense to create a sense of horror and explores the theme of guilt.

There are few mystery authors whose work has been as influential as Agatha Christie . With classic sleuth stories like And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express , Christie succeeded in creating memorable enigmas that challenged her readers to pay close attention so that they could solve the cases before the characters could. Given the descriptive prose, exciting plot twists, and memorable characters that are recurring within much of Christie’s work, it’s unsurprising that her novels have been frequently adapted into television shows . While Christie’s knack for creating clever detective stories was unparalleled, the underrated British miniseries The Pale Horse succeeded by drawing in supernatural elements.

What Is ‘The Pale Horse’ About?

Based on the 1961 novel of the same name, The Pale Horse stood out in comparison to Christie’s other works due to its dark tone and allusions to black magic . Unlike Christie’s novels about the detective Hercule Poirot , The Pale Horse centers on a rather unlikeable protagonist who begins to suffer physical consequences from his overwhelming sense of greed. The story follows the historian Mark Easterbrook ( Rufus Sewell ), who is researching artifacts left behind by the Mughal Empire. After the woman Jessie Davis ( Madeleine Bowyer ) is found dead in a street, a list of names is recovered from her shoe. After examining the names, Mark discovers that his paramour, Thomasina Tuckerton ( Poppy Gilbert ), is also included on the list.

While it does not automatically announce itself as a work of fantasy, The Pale Horse does a great job at steadily teasing its supernatural elements as the story continues. This is effective because Mark serves as an audience avatar who is exposed to the details of the murders at the same time as the audience. Mark is inherently skeptical and does not automatically jump to the conclusion that there is a darker force at play involved in Jessie’s death. However, his suspicions are raised once he visits the enigmatic village of Much Deeping and consults with three women who resemble witches. It’s in this instance that Mark’s anxieties take hold of him; he can’t help but feel that Jessie’s death set off a chain reaction that will soon consume him. While The Pale Horse only consists of two episodes, the show still manages to go deeper into Mark’s psychology than what may have been possible if this was a film adaptation of Christie’s novel .

The Pale Horse utilizes circumstantial evidence to invoke horror, as Mark is only privy to selective information about the nature of the killings. This is foreshadowed in the opening moments of the first episode in which his previous wife, Delphine ( Georgina Campbell ), dies by electrocution in a bathtub. While the nature of Mark’s involvement in her death is not revealed until later on in the series, it’s evident that the situation has seared him with a perpetual feeling of guilt. It serves as a compelling framing device that explains why Mark believes that there may be supernatural forces at play. Deep down, he knows that he will have to pay the consequences for his crimes. While the series depends on suspense more than it leans into overt horror, Sewell’s excellent performance shows how easily reality can be misconstrued with fantasy.

‘The Pale Horse’ Shows the Horror of Guilt

the-pale-horse copy

While it’s as grounded in logic as any of Christie’s best stories, The Pale Horse utilizes fantastical imagery to explore Mark’s psychology . The title itself is a reference to the Biblical Horseman of the Apocalypse, a motif that is common with stories that are inspired by Christie . In the series, the “Pale Horse” is a malevolent organization that bets on the likelihood of a client’s death within a specific window of time; it’s a clever twist that shows the banality of those who are willing to benefit from the death of innocent people. Each subsequent death within the series escalates the tension, as director Leonora Lonsdale does a great job at masking details of the victims' deaths to keep the culprit ambiguous. The dark, foreboding visuals imply a greater sense of paranoia as Mark attempts to determine how these seemingly incidental cases are related.

Jude Law hiding in a bush in The Third Day

Jude Law's Psychological Horror HBO Miniseries Will Make You Question Everything

While it’s evident that he is guilty of abusing the privileges of his wealth, Mark is a vulnerable protagonist who is manipulated by the real culprits in the case . Mark relies on knowledge from the pharmacist Zachariah Osborne ( Bertie Carvel ), who initially points him to the witches and suggests that he must be cleansed by fire to purge himself of sin. It’s clear that Osborne is trying to mask his own involvement in the deaths by leading Mark to make inaccurate conclusions. However, Mark’s willingness to believe him shows that his guilt has advanced to the point that he is willing to look past seemingly suspicious evidence presented to him by strangers. Mark is so desperate to avoid the fate that Jessie and Thomasina suffered that he falls victim to the same conspiracy that he is attempting to unravel.

‘The Pale Horse’ Leans Into Horror

As was the case with the excellent miniseries adaptation of Christie’s novel And Then There Were None , The Pale Horse leans into horror with its ambiguous ending. The Pale Horse delves deeper into the fear of death than what is commonly seen in investigative thrillers. This is perhaps most evident within the final moments of the series when Mark is forced to revive a recurring nightmare about Delphine's; it’s similar to a twisted version of Groundhog Day where Mark is stuck in a loop of the most traumatic moment of his life.

With its gloomy atmosphere and brutality, The Pale Horse shows why Christie’s work is so suited for television. While the series’ excellent production design and period aesthetics keep it grounded within its historical context, The Pale Horse addresses universal themes about the nature of fate. While there have been many strong horror miniseries in recent years, The Pale Horse successfully brings to life a classic novel with an uncharacteristically sinister twist .

The Pale Horse is available to stream on Prime Video in the U.S.

Watch on Amazon Prime

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COMMENTS

  1. Horse by Geraldine Brooks book review

    The historical novel 'Horse' sheds light on real-life racism Pulitzer winner Geraldine Brooks's latest book is a sweeping tale that uses the true story of a famous 19th-century racehorse to...

  2. In 'Horse,' Geraldine Brooks Sets a ...

    In 'Horse,' Geraldine Brooks Sets a Consideration of Race at the Track Brooks's latest novel focuses on two young Black men, and shuttles between the present day and the 19th-century world of...

  3. Horse by Geraldine Brooks

    118,126 ratings11,619 reviews A discarded painting in a junk pile, a skeleton in an attic, and the greatest racehorse in American history: from these strands, a Pulitzer Prize winner braids a sweeping story of spirit, obsession, and injustice across American history Kentucky, 1850.

  4. Horse by Geraldine Brooks review

    Horse by Geraldine Brooks review - a confident novel of racing and race The Australian-American author gallops through the life of a famed racehorse in the antebellum south but falters when she...

  5. Horse

    by Geraldine Brooks reviewed by Bailey Sincox "Historical fiction" may be one name for Geraldine Brooks's craft, but that label doesn't do her novels justice. Her Pulitzer Prize-winner, March (2005), spotlights the taciturn father from Little Women.

  6. The novel 'Horse' is the story of an enslaved man grooming a ...

    Lexington was a winning thoroughbred in the mid-1800's, and the basis of Geraldine Brooks' new novel, "Horse." Scott Simon talks with her about her story. SCOTT SIMON, HOST: Lexington was one of...

  7. Horse by Geraldine Brooks: Summary and reviews

    New York City, 1954. Martha Jackson, a gallery owner celebrated for taking risks on edgy contemporary painters, becomes obsessed with a nineteenth-century equestrian oil painting of mysterious provenance. Washington, DC, 2019.

  8. Book Review: Horse

    (Viking) By Sally Lee | Spring/Summer 2022 Viking A story of present-day interracial romance woven together with a history of thoroughbred racing in the antebellum South, Horse, a new novel by Geraldine Brooks '83JRN, is no safe bet. Yet readers who appreciate rigorous historical research and polished storytelling should certainly stay the course.

  9. 'Horse' Review: An Exhilarating Ride Through Time

    (5 min) 'Bay Mare and Foal in Stall' (1833) by Edward Troye. Photo: National Sporting Library & Museum, Gift of Jacqueline Ohrstrom, from the bequest of George L. Ohstrom, Jr., 2015

  10. "Horse," by Geraldine Brooks, Book Review

    Books Geraldine Brooks Probes Racing—and Race—in Her New Historical Novel, Horse The Pulitzer Prize winner explores the unwritten true tale of America's most famous racehorse—and uses that story to show how far we need to go in confronting systemic racism. By Eleni Gage Updated: Aug 02, 2022 4:19 PM EST Save Article Author photo: Randi Baird

  11. HORSE

    bookshelf shop now Awards & Accolades Our Verdict GET IT New York Times Bestseller IndieBound Bestseller A long-lost painting sets in motion a plot intertwining the odyssey of a famed 19th-century thoroughbred and his trainer with the 21st-century rediscovery of the horse's portrait.

  12. White Author, Black Paragons

    June 10, 2022 It's 2019 in Washington, D.C., and Theo is changing his art-history dissertation after finding a painting of a horse in his neighbor's giveaway pile. He is 26 years old, a Black...

  13. Horse by Geraldine Brooks: 9780399562976

    About Horse "Brooks' chronological and cross-disciplinary leaps are thrilling." —The New York Times Book Review "Horse isn't just an animal story—it's a moving narrative about race and art."—TIME "A thrilling story about humanity in all its ugliness and beauty . . . the evocative voices create a story so powerful, reading it feels like watching a neck-and-neck horse race ...

  14. Amazon.com: Horse: A Novel: 9780399562969: Brooks, Geraldine: Books

    "Brooks' chronological and cross-disciplinary leaps are thrilling." — The New York Times Book Review " Horse isn't just an animal story—it's a moving narrative about race and art." — TIME " A thrilling story about humanity in all its ugliness and beauty . . . the evocative voices create a story so powerful, reading it feels like watching a neck-and-neck horse race ...

  15. Book review of Horse by Geraldine Brooks

    July 2022 Horse By Geraldine Brooks Review by Michael Magras Geraldine Brooks returns to themes she explored so well in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, March . Endurance isn't always a desirable quality.

  16. All Book Marks reviews for Horse by Geraldine Brooks

    Ambitious, well-meaning, and beautifully written in stretches, while labored or overwrought in others, Horse is an uneven offering by a great novelist. Read Full Review >>. Mixed. In putting Douglass's argument so early in the book—on page 57—Brooks signals to us that she enters her latest project knowingly.

  17. Horse: A Novel

    Viking 416 pp. Reviewed by Patricia Schultheis June 28, 2022 A sweeping look at race — and racing — in America. Horse by Geraldine Brooks, winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for March, is a sprawling roman à clef covering nearly 170 years of American history, stretching from antebellum Kentucky to present-day Washington, DC.

  18. Masterful Historical: Read Our Review of Horse by Geraldine Brooks

    From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March and People of the Book comes a vivid and unique new novel for lovers of sweeping historical fiction. Kentucky, 1850. An enslaved groom named Jarret and a bay foal forge a bond of understanding that will carry the horse to record-setting victories across the South, even as the nation reels towards war. An …

  19. Horse by Geraldine Brooks

    Horse. by Geraldine Brooks. Publication Date: January 16, 2024. Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction. Paperback: 464 pages. Publisher: Penguin Books. ISBN-10: 0399562974. ISBN-13: 9780399562976. A site dedicated to book lovers providing a forum to discover and share commentary about the books and authors they enjoy.

  20. Review: Horse, by Geraldine Brooks

    Review: Horse, by Geraldine Brooks. I enjoy novels that tell a strong story. I especially admire novels that manage to tell more than one story and do it well. In Horse, Geraldine Brooks tells three stories, effectively, carefully, tenderly braiding all three into one compelling narrative. What's more, two of three are true-and there's as ...

  21. Book Club Questions for Horse by Geraldine Brooks

    Book Club Questions for Horse. The following book club questions have been tailored to this book's specific reading experience. . 1. On page 28 (Theo, Georgetown, Washington, DC, 2019), Theo reflects that depictions of horses are among the oldest art humans created. The book's epigraphs reflect on the significance of Lexington — in his ...

  22. Review of Horse by Geraldine Brooks

    by Diane Chamberlain. Published 2023. About this book. More by this author. A community's past sins rise to the surface in New York Times bestselling author Diane Chamberlain's The Last House on the Street when two women, a generation apart, find themselves bound by tragedy and an unsolved, decades-old mystery.

  23. Book Review: Horse

    (Viking) By Sally Lee | Spring/Summer 2022 Viking A story of present-day interracial romance woven together with a history of thoroughbred racing in the antebellum South, Horse, a new novel by Geraldine Brooks '83JRN, is no safe bet.

  24. It's Easy to Lose Faith

    A horse and cart went past. I see. I believe in them. They grow dark. The horse and cart went past. But the horse had a horse. The cart had a cart. They led their own selves large from shadows along the acacias. And now it's hard for me to believe in the horse and cart.

  25. The best luxury hotels for horse lovers

    BOOK . Those after a horsey break with a difference should run, not walk, to Lucknam Park. The expansive, 500-acre estate is home to 35 glossy-flanked horses, as well as a Michelin-starred ...

  26. If You Find This, I'm Already Dead #1 Reviews (2024) at

    Plot The US Army obtained a portal to a Pocket Universe of the Quantum Realm and militarized the place for five years, this new world is incomprehensible as violent. For the first time they send a civilian with a team of 5 army commandos to this planet they call Terminus, this civilian is the New York Times war reporter named Robin Reed, but as soon as they arrive at the base in five minutes ...

  27. This Miniseries Is an Agatha Christie Mystery With a ...

    Based on the 1961 novel of the same name, The Pale Horse stood out in comparison to Christie's other works due to its dark tone and allusions to black magic.Unlike Christie's novels about the ...