Three time zones interweave in Geraldine Brooks’ soulful tour de force, and the thrill is as much in the individual tales and their colourful personalities as it is in watching the strands converge in a denouement that leaves the reader gasping for air.
Ostensibly Horse is the story of the legendary Lexington, and while the novel is a work of imagination, this exquisite racehorse very much did exist. He was the fastest racer in US equine history and went on to sire champions. He was also, “a horse so handsome that the best equestrian artists vied to paint him” notes Brooks, and all this as Civil War brewed in a deeply-divided nation.
We start in 2019 with one of those paintings as Theo, a Nigerian-American art historian, rescues a damaged canvas from the curbside opposite his apartment, thrown out by his grieving recently widowed, and cantankerous, neighbour.
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In seamless leaps this leads us to Jess, an endearing and nerdy Australian scientist, passionate about bones, working at the Smithsonian’s research laboratories where she discovers an equine skeleton languishing unceremoniously in a storage room.
Add in gallery owner Martha Jackson in 1994 New York, a friend of Jackson Pollock and his wife. And then in alternating chapters, the backstory of the marvellous Lexington in 1850s’ Kentucky and the enslaved groom Jarret, whose profound bond with the horse results in his brilliance on the race track.
Through this extraordinary epic saga, the author splashes around in the romance of men’s relationship with horses and America’s dark history of slavery and racism, also throwing in some sharp-edged art history.
WATCH: Geraldine Brooks discusses her novel Horse. Article continues after video
“I work very instinctively, without a plan, and as the stories emerge I can begin to see the points where they intersect and echo one another,” explains Brooks of her writing process.
The storytelling is magical and so too are the characters, whose pleasure and pain we feel intensely. While writing, the author lost her husband and soulmate and that is perhaps reflected in the deep emotion that pulsates throughout the narrative.
“I had only completed about half the novel when he died. I read that aloud to him during a long car drive and to my relief, he liked what I had done. He was a great expert on the American Civil War period and was always my best editor.
“It is just one of the hundreds of ways I miss him every day,” Brooks tells The Weekly.