Depictions of the horse as God are usually associated with George Stubbs' paintings of English thoroughbreds - flanks glistening, tails coiffed, nostrils flared, heads tossed high.
There are, however, plenty of other artists happy to glorify horse flesh. Intrepid war horses are justly praised, if not Michael Morpugo's then Buchephalus (which caried Alexander the Great), Marengo (Napoleon's steed) or Traveller (Robert E. Lee's). Children remain attached to Black Beauty and the Silver Brumby, while adults continue to learn lessons from poor old Boxer in Animal Farm. Phar Lap has been installed in a category of its own; no other horse could boast a heart and carcass separately on posthumous display.
Geraldine Brooks claims that horses comprise "a universal subject, their images among the earliest art that human beings have created". In this book, horses' "moods, their alliances, their simple wants, their many fears" are gently and gracefully elaborated. More sensory and sensual experiences, like "snuffling warm air through velvet nostrils", are also given full play.
To the ranks of storied steeds, Brooks has now added a novel about Lexington, "the fastest and most famous racehorse of the nineteenth century". Brooks insists that "most of the details" are historically accurate. The exceptions surely include opinions her own horse is said to have offered "in the language equus". Brooks' experiences as a cadet Fairfax journalist covering the race track is relevant, as are "the lively turf papers of the day".
Brooks has written some wonderful books. Although her talent, style and values remain consistent, as they should, her subject matter has ranged far and wide, between sexes, historical periods and points of view. She has sometimes seemed less polymath than shape-shifter, in explorations of a Hebrew harpist king, a Civil War family, a village threatened by plague, a First Nations graduate from Harvard and the peregrinations of a manuscript.
These myriad by-ways have led Brooks to examine a horse which covered 960 mares, producing 575 foals. More impressively still, that horse was so fast the automatic stopwatch was manufactured so that fans could clock its times. Bringing so renowned a beast back to literary life is no mean feat. A friend of mine used to scrutinise early-morning trackwork on behalf of bookmakers. She claimed that precise observation, fine judgment, a determination not to be bluffed or duped, and sharp discernment were required. In describing a long-dead horse from afar, Brooks demonstrates those same skills.
Brooks starts off, this section set in 2019, with a couple of sweet references to her Australian home. One character owns a kelpie and wears Blundstones; another fondly recalls Sydney's Burwood Road and pines for the surf.
The reader is introduced to "the kind of parent who would let her daughter set the house on fire is she thought it could teach something of carbon and oxygen". After that, we meet an author working his way out of academic writing, "like shrugging off a suit to pull on a sweatshirt". There is typical Brooks in two sentences, deft, quirky, smart, memorable. Brooks infuses one scientist with a love of "the intricate architecture of living things". The author is similarly infused.
Brooks' work is suffused - here as everywhere else - with a sense of wonder, love and joy in the living world. Few other authors could captivate readers with accounts of a 200-kilogram whale skull from the Pilgrim era or the gruesome detail of a foal's birth. Fewer still could expand a story about tawdry, corrupt horse racing into meditations on race, discrimination and climate change.
Brooks interweaves two parallel stories, one starting in 1853, the other in 2019. The more modern tale concerns a study of the effect of conformation on the locomotion biomechanics of horses, as conducted by the Smithsonian's vertebrate osteology laboratory. Remarkably, Brooks brings all the technical minutiae to life, including an argument for using spit when cleaning a painting.
The second strand of narrative is more poignant and more intensely rendered. That deals with an enslaved stable hand-cum-horse trainer, Jarret, into whose deft and attentive hands Lexington's care is entrusted. Jarret enjoys less troubled, more intimate relations with the horse than he does with any of the white owners, overseers and onlookers (one of whom painted the portrait to which spit is applied more than a century later). Jarret's ambition is an ennobling one: "He would go on in the world as a man".
At one point Brooks imagines Lexington running "for the joy of it". That is an engaging, anthropomorphic tribute to a champion. Lexington - here nurtured, ridden, painted and articulated - is a fitting, fine hero.
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