... thrilling ... This layout may seem a little too neat—and, indeed, the symmetry of the novel’s interlocking plots might well have dulled its emotional effect were it not for Ms. Brooks’s almost clairvoyant ability to conjure up the textures of the past and of each character’s inner life ... Above all, she makes us both impatient to see and fearful to learn what might befall Theo, the black graduate student who rediscovers the painting, and, centuries earlier, Jarret, the enslaved horseman whose story forms the heart of the novel ... Alongside this personal drama, Ms. Brooks expertly stages the larger one of the Civil War ... Chapters set in the 19th century are therefore richly populated and dense with talk of emancipation, sedition and corruption. Yet none of this seems forced or perfunctory. Ms. Brooks’s felicitous, economical style and flawless pacing—the way she smoothly accelerates from languor to high adventure—carries us briskly yet unhurriedly along. And the novel’s alternating narratives, by suspending time, also intensify suspense ... Ms. Brooks folds into a love story the weighty matter of racism and its lethal consequences without stalling the graceful narrative flow.
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 ... 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.
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) ... 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?') ... 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 ... 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 ... But this is really a book about the power and pain of words, not pictures ... 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.
Brooks offers a richly textured, intricately developed narrative about that magnificent horse, his trainer, the artist who painted them, and those who restored the skeleton of the great creature in a museum many years later ... Indeed, this is a novel that explores and exposes real historical figures and actual conditions, events and forces. These are animated through Brooks’ exquisite character construction. Horse deftly reveals the long-term effects of history, depicting the continuities of the brutal treatment of African Americans in the United States during the era of slavery and its deadly manifestations today ... a daring and disturbing novel ... The wealth of historical detail is an impressive element in Horse, and yet it is worn lightly ... Brooks’s knowledge and understanding of horses permeates this compelling work of historical fiction. She presents detailed descriptions of the anatomical variations of thoroughbreds, the biomechanics of their speed and strength, breeding strategies, the methods and foibles of farriers, and the individual temperaments of a range of horses ... Her careful creation of sensibility in her characters, her overarching intelligence, and her refusal of sentimentality represent historical fiction at its best. Brooks has once more weighed into American history, offering bold characterisation, a compelling story, and a fresh perspective on narratives of self-definition, progress and change.
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 ... 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 ... 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 ... relies on ungainly cliff-hangers to pull the reader from chapter to chapter ... The romance is bland ... The details occasionally inspire a flinch ... and the moments when Brooks addresses racism more directly can read as self-conscious and pedantic ... 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...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 ... 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?
Geraldine Brooks is one of our most gifted historical novelists ... Her pellucid prose, quiet yet compelling style, and facility with both nuanced historical detail and vibrant characterization have brought her critical acclaim ... Brooks is herself an ardent horsewoman, and her knowledge of and personal investment in the topic shine through Horse ... Anyone who grew up loving horses, anyone who dearly loves an animal, will find a cornucopia of riches in this novel ... One must admire the good intentions of Brooks’s novel: its commitment to laying bare the horrors of racism, its insistence on animal intelligence, its anger at climate change and man’s desire to control and exploit nature and animals. But the messaging feels at times heavy-handed ... The present-day story is satisfying in parts but unfortunately proportioned. The thrill of historical discovery, the painstaking way that animals are articulated, the detective work Jess and Theo do to uncover what happened to Lexington and the artist who captured him on canvas — Brooks brings all this to vivid and fascinating life ... By contrast, every scene and section with Jarrett is uncannily beautiful, wise, and true. His story, and the relationship between him and Lexington, are the heart of this novel and should have been its clear focus. Ambitious, well-meaning, and beautifully written in stretches, while labored or overwrought in others, Horse is an uneven offering by a great novelist.
Brooks, clearly a horse lover, explores a fascinating sidebar to history that highlights how the lucrative business of horse racing was deeply entwined with the institution of slavery in the pre-Civil War South ... Her sensitive, deeply researched novel is a welcome step toward correcting the historical record ... Jarret, Lexington's devoted groom and trainer, is the most compelling and wholly realized character, albeit largely imagined due to what Brooks says in her afterward is woeful lack of documentation about him ... Unfortunately, their interest in the horse is more convincing than their interest in each other, which seems engineered to provide a platform on which to address racial issues ... In a narrative that smoothly jumps between multiple strands in both past and present, Brooks weaves in the story of the mutual esteem that grows between the white painter Scott and the Black groom Jarret, in part based on their shared respect for horses' feelings ... You can always bet on Brooks to deliver a smart, eye-opening read. But without giving away too much, I should warn readers that by piling on a galling contemporary event meant to underscore America's terrible history of bigotry, she overloads Horse with more than it can comfortably carry. That said, not just horse lovers will be enthralled by this often heart-pounding novel about the legacy of a remarkable thoroughbred.
... full of incident (I’m tempted to say it gallops along), as though history was just one more thing after another. That it feels less cohesive than some of her other work has something to do with the material she has chosen to fictionalise, which is less receptive to the artful manipulation and thematic unification in which Brooks specialises ... One problem with this is that Horse doesn’t do a terribly convincing job of evoking the inner lives of its characters, even — perhaps especially — those who did once exist. This is partly because the dialogue is often pretty clunky and full of reductive stereotypes ... Even if Brooks gets other voices right, there’s something manipulative about the way the novel uses overheard speech to move the plot forward ... A bigger problem is the novel’s suggestion of a parallel between human and animal suffering and structural discrimination ... Brooks is certainly not the first writer to use the horse’s proximity to human life as a metaphor for the narrow gap between civilisation and barbarity — think of Jonathan Swift, of Anna Sewell, even Michael Morpurgo — but to seek these kinds of equivalences, however well-meaning, is to some extent to submit to their regressive logic. Using animal cruelty as a proxy for human suffering threatens to reduce the horrors of both.
... 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. Told across dual timelines set in both 1850s Kentucky and 2020s Washington, D.C. (with an intriguingly weird stop in 1950s New York in which Jackson Pollock makes an appearance), Brooks deftly explores the deep roots and pervasive persistence of structural racism ... A hard narrative swerve toward the end of the novel toes the line of melodrama but drives home the point that, as much as we’d like to believe differently, the poisonous legacy of slavery and racism is still alive and well in America today. But Brooks’ story is at its best during the segments which illuminate both Jarret’s life and the largely unexplored stories of the other Black grooms, trainers, and jockeys who all played a central role in the antebellum thoroughbred industry ... eeply interested in illustrating just how much of what we understand as the world of horse racing today is due to the stolen labor of these same men, many of whom’s names have been lost to time ... while Horse is occasionally a bit preoccupied with the strange, almost fanciful serendipities of the animal’s life and death ... this is what Brooks gets right: the monstrous and the magical at the heart of the myth of America, and the uncomfortable ways that our history doesn’t always look that different from our right now.
is really and truly the way things happened. The barns, the barbers, the drawing rooms, the streets, are all skilfully and convincingly drawn. The cruelty of humankind towards animals, as well as the cruelty of humankind towards itself feels real. This is a huge book, with enormous themes, beautifully and engagingly written. Expect it on all the prize lists this year. Brilliant!
Horse racing plus American racism may seem to be an unlikely pair of topics for a novel, but with Horse, Geraldine Brooks has woven them together in an engrossing, masterful fashion ... Brooks manages to combine social commentary with a compelling narrative — exciting races, a missing painting, the silent mystery hidden in the bones of a long-dead championship horse — and guides the reader just as an expert jockey might steer a horse to victory ... Throughout such time travels, Brooks makes each setting come alive ... Most moving, perhaps, is the death of Lexington, which brings an elegant, heartfelt tribute to the most formidable competitor of his time, or any other.
Readers who appreciate rigorous historical research and polished storytelling should certainly stay the course ... Brooks is known for undertaking extensive research, and in the novel’s afterword she says that as she pored over archives she was struck by the stories of the Black grooms, trainers, and jockeys ... Geraldine Brooks, of course, is also a white woman, writing from the perspective of an enslaved man and a multiracial student confronting the disappointing limits of 'woke' culture. It’s a bold choice for a novelist, especially when debates over cultural appropriation in fiction are heated and divisive. Brooks seems aware of the risk ... Despite the book’s title, the horse, Lexington, becomes less of a major character and more of an also-ran, and by making that choice, the novelist raised the stakes.
Tracing the painting over the course of a century and a half, Brooks deftly illustrates how it is entwined with our own ... Brooks doesn’t shy away from confronting — and having her characters face — the same racialized violence inherent in the painting’s creation.
Being a horse lover and a rider herself, Brooks easily gives details and descriptions about equines and the sports they participate in. Her knowledge not only builds the world, past and present, but it gives it a human warmth—a love that alights on the page, passed on to the reader .... trots along at a pleasant pace; the chapters making sure the plot doesn’t get mired in its machinations ... ending 'incident' with Theo and Jess seems a bit heavy-handed, even if it remains realistic and altogether relevant. And for someone with such skill at creating a mostly fictitious history and using it to bring the past into conversation with the present, the side story of Jackson Pollock and his patron Martha Jackson seems a bit untethered ... All things considered, Brooks handles her horse book with a firm grasp on the reins ... enjoyable and gives subtle shocks here and there, realizations into untold truths, and includes the best kind of love story—one without the melodrama of two human participants.
The most exciting thing a reader can experience is opening a book they’re not sure about and being blown away by delight. Horse delivers this surprise ... Each brief chapter tells a piece of the story through rich, you-are-there scenes that deftly balance the narrative techniques of showing and telling. While most of the narrative is description and internal thoughts, with minimal dialogue, it still grabs and holds attention and conveys personalities and conflicts ... The author’s writing style is pure literary, with each word, sentence, paragraph perfectly chosen and sailing steadily onward to unify the story elements. As well, she masterfully presents the ugly parts, especially in the early period ... The author has already won a Pulitzer Prize for her meaningful storytelling; this book has the potential to earn her another one.
... some readers may find that the events in Horse rely too heavily on coincidence ... brilliant when Brooks focuses on the 19th century and dramatizes American prejudice and discrimination before, during and after the Civil War. Jarret is a particularly memorable character, especially in his scenes with the horse and the painter, as is the slippery Ten Broeck, whose motivations are brilliantly set up and whose actions will resonate with chilling familiarity ... Brooks’ novel is an audacious work that reinforces, with sobering immediacy, the sad fact that racism has a remarkable capacity to endure.
An emotionally impactful tale centering on the life and legacy of Lexington, a bay colt who became a racing champion in mid-nineteenth-century America ... Among the most structurally complex of all Brooks’ acclaimed literary historical novels, the narrative adroitly interlaces multiple eras and perspectives.
Once again, Brooks probes our understanding of history to reveal the power structures that create both the facts and the fiction ... Brooks 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. Highly recommended.
... 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 ... 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 with tender precision, Horse shows us history in flux ... 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.
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 ... 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 ... 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.'
Equestrians or not, readers will appreciate Brooks's invitation to linger awhile among beautiful and graceful horses, to see the devotion they engendered in her characters and in the author (a horsewoman) herself.
Fascinating ... While Brooks’s multiple narratives and strong character development captivate, and she soars with the story of Jarret, a late plot twist in the D.C. thread dampens the ending a bit. Despite a bit of flagging in the home stretch, this wins by a nose.
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 ... 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 ... Strong storytelling in service of a stinging moral message.
Brooks skillfully paints the picture of an enslaved Black youth named Jarrett in 1850s Kentucky ... Throughout the story, it is impossible to miss those parallels between the treatment of horses and enslaved people. While at times clunky and over-engineered, some comparisons are torturously resonate ... The takeaway, teed up in discordant endings of triumph and heartbreak, seems to be while celebrating progress we must continue to rebuke racism. Our reckoning remains incomplete and unresolved. Horse is a poignant check-in, a lookout point, for how far we’ve come, and how far we still yet must ride. In 21st century America, privilege is still purchased by proximity to power, which is too often equivalent to whiteness. Horse stands as a convincing case that time alone does not heal all wounds.