Horse: A Novel
“the novel is a big story embracing many interrelated things, solidly grounded in reality over time, containing the pains, passions, and wonders of multiple characters across generations through a stimulating intellectual mystery.”
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. Yes, it’s a classic horse story, in which a special boy bonds with a special horse and extraordinary things happen. But it’s so much more.
As a literary style of novel based on real people and animals, it delves deeply into character, place, and times. This book uses a unique character—a Thoroughbred racehorse—to tell us about the effects of slavery in the United States from pre–Civil War to present day.
Chapters cycle between the viewpoints of Jarret, an enslaved boy at a Kentucky breeding farm in 1850, and two researchers in 2019. They are connected by Lexington, a colt of astounding speed and nature, who became a record-holding sire of prize-winning progeny.
While Jarret’s story is about raising, training, and saving Lexington, the researchers’ story is about finding Lexington’s remains and tracing backward to authenticate them.
Tess is a bone expert who comes across the horse’s skeleton in the attics of the Natural History Museum. Theo, a grad student in art history, comes across a painting of Lexington in a neighbor’s pile of free stuff dumped on the curb.
As they investigate the provenance of both painting and skeleton, readers are treated to additional viewpoints from key intermediaries: an itinerant artist who paints Lexington’s portrait, and a modern art dealer who inherits it through a complex and almost bizarre chain.
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.
In particular it portrays what it’s like to be owned and controlled in pockets of the southern states during the build-up, violence, and aftermath of the Civil War. At the same time, it covers the rise of Thoroughbred breeding and racing in America and its links to Europe. Then it shows how both legacies echo through the country a century and a half later.
Human characters include Blacks and whites, rich and poor, kind and greedy, North and South, urban and rural, scientific and artistic, political and neutral. Equine characters include many types and personality of bloodhorse and utilitarian horse. The contemporary players are fictional, while the historic players are a mix of real and fictional. The historical elements are carefully researched and believable, and the modern elements will be familiar and understandable to most readers.
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. Those times were cruel indeed to both human and animal, and glossing over them would undermine the story's plausibility. Yet she does not linger over the pain, just presents it in context, enough to feel and understand the impact, then moves on.
The narrative pace is leisurely to start, providing everything readers need to know and inspiring them to care about the people and horses, and worry about their fates when the stakes and tension ramp up. That happens about the halfway point. The ups and downs get steeper. The viewpoint changes happen more often. Chapters start getting shorter, and the timeline accelerates.
As the eras come together, the book starts to feel rushed. Once the climax occurs, it almost seems like a different book because what appears to be the author’s personal viewpoint seeps in. By then readers have been immersed in the story world and characters’ heads, so it’s a shock when events occur that are remarkably similar to actual recent news stories and social media storms.
Perhaps that’s the novel’s point: to show how the past forms the present and future. They are a continuum, never separate. The blend also might influence the cover design, which doesn’t illustrate anything from the book and gives no clue what’s inside. It commits itself to neither past nor present, instead illustrating the author’s brand by matching the cover style of her other works.
That nitpick aside, the novel is a big story embracing many interrelated things, solidly grounded in reality over time, containing the pains, passions, and wonders of multiple characters across generations through a stimulating intellectual mystery. The author has already won a Pulitzer Prize for her meaningful storytelling; this book has the potential to earn her another one.