‘Nothing like a new horse to brighten a day.’
In 2019, a PhD student in art history rescues an oil painting of a horse from a pile of possessions discarded on a sidewalk in Georgetown, and a zoologist finds a skeleton labelled ‘Horse’ in a Smithsonian attic. In 1850, an enslaved boy is present when a mare foals. This is how Ms Brooks begins her novel. Yes, foal will become the horse in the painting and the skeleton in the Smithsonian. The enslaved boy, Jarret, will be with the horse from his first breath to his last. The foal, first named Darley, will be renamed Lexington. Lexington, a real racehorse, won six of his seven starts and became a legendary thoroughbred sire. His offspring dominated American racing in the late 19th century.
Some of the characters in the story are, like Lexington, real. Ms Brooks includes the various owners of Lexington and the painter Thomas J Scott. And in 1954, Martha Jackson a modernist art dealer, becomes obsessed with the painting when the woman working for her seeks her advice on a painting that has been handed down within her family. The key characters: Jarret; the PhD student Theo; and Jess the zoologist are fictional.
Jarret is the imagined son of Harry Lewis, a horse trainer who was able to buy his own freedom in antebellum Kentucky. Harry’s employer, Dr Warfield, offers to colt Darley to Harry in lieu of a year’s wages. If the colt is successful, Harry might be able to purchase Jarret’s freedom. But once Darley wins his first race, Dr Warfield is reminded by others that there is a law preventing Black people from racing horses. As a result, both Darley (then renamed Lexington) and Jarret are sold. They are sent south and become part of Richard Ten Broeck’s operation in Louisiana. Neither will be free.
In 2019, Theo and Jess are brought together by Lexington’s relics. Theo, the son of diplomats (a Nigerian mother and an American father) is painfully aware of racism. Jess, an Australian scientist, fascinated by the bones of the horse is less sensitive. They begin a tentative relationship, cut short by tragedy.
I really enjoyed this novel, the way in which Ms Brooks wove fiction around history to bring both Jarret and Lexington to life. And, just in case anyone has forgotten, slavery may no longer exist, but racism certainly does.