Horse unfolds in three parallel narratives spanning three centuries. In the 19th century, an enslaved man learns the art of training a horse from his free father and goes on to a long association with the greatest racehorse of his era, the legendary Lexington. In the 20th Century, an influential art dealer known for her work with abstract painters takes an unlikely interest in a painting of Lexington done by a minor artist. And in 2019, an art historian and a scientist find themselves drawn together by their overlapping research into Lexington.
It is perhaps a curious thing that Gerladine Brooks, the author of Horse, seems far more comfortable writing about people in the 1850s than in the present day. The sections of the book dealing with Lexington’s career and Jarrett’s struggle to stay involved despite the pervasive racism of the time are frequently thrilling. Whether through research or prior knowledge, Brooks clearly knows her horses. Many will take issue with her depiction of Jarrett’s bondage, which due to unusual circumstances is hardly representative of the barbaric cruelty of the practice, but at least Jarrett is well-developed as a character and his story is compelling. His uneasy relationship with the painter commissioned to depict Lexington in his glory is a highlight of the novel.
In contrast, the sections set in 2019 are often artless and awkward. The burgeoning relationship between Smithsonian scientist Jess and Georgetown art-history PhD candidate Theo is poorly handled right from the start. Their “meet cute” is more of a microaggression, as Jess, a white woman, barely avoids accusing Theo, a black man, of stealing his own bike, which is identical to her own. From there, somehow they begin working together and seeing each other socially, with Brooks continually inserting awkward moments straight from a workplace EEO training seminar. This poorly done foreshadowing robs the book’s ending of its intended shock value.
Meanwhile, the 20th century section is so minimal as to make the reader question its inclusion. It feels like Brooks learned an interesting real-life fact about her subject and couldn’t let it go. Martha Jackson, art dealer and friend of Jackson Pollock, gets a few short chapters in which she buys a decidedly non-abstract painting of Lexington and that’s about it.
Horse is undone by Brooks’s ambition. Especially in the contemporary sections, she strains for meaning and depth in ways that are beyond her depth. The seams that show in the novel’s best sections begin to rip apart in her weaker efforts. Her impressive ability to recreate the past and utilize her research can’t serve her in the 2019 narrative, where she demonstrates a purely surface-level awareness of race relations and social justice. Her characters start trading buzzwords rather than having conversations, and a fatal unreality creeps into the proceedings. Her insertion of these elements begins to feel rather cynical, as though she is trying to borrow cachet for what after all should’ve just been a story about a horse.
Ultimately, this disconnect between the narratives overwhelms the positive attributes of the novel, and the reader is honestly left wondering what this book is even about.