Tim Pears’ finest novels are hymns to nature and keen-eyed examinations of the fabric of families or close-knit communities.
The English writer’s latest offering, “The Horseman,” has particular echoes with his prizewinning debut “In the Place of Fallen Leaves” (1993) and “Landed” (2010): All follow young protagonists growing up on or around farms.
However, this new novel, Pears’ eighth, is Book 1 in a historical trilogy, and as such it feels weightier than do its predecessors: substantial enough to be a stand-alone novel and a vital first installment. Pears steadily and satisfyingly branches out, unfurling his canvas and introducing characters we want to see more of, plus a raft of unresolved issues and emotions.
As with past work, Pears sets his drama in the southwest of England. It is 1911, and an entire rural society remains cocooned from urban crises and mounting international tension.
Shy, taciturn Leo Sercombe lives with his family on Lord Prideaux’s estate. He is a poor pupil but a talented horse rider. Out of class, he helps his father, a farmer and carter, toiling in the fields or tending the horses.
Soon his enthusiasm for horses reaches the Lord’s groom: “Another Sercombe with equine blood in his bones, so they say.” That enthusiasm is also noted by the lord’s daughter, Charlotte, also aged 12 and also a rider. After a frosty start, the pair become close, forming a bond after holding a vigil for Charlotte’s dying horse. But when they start to meet in secret, Leo oversteps a social boundary and plays a dangerous game with dire consequences.
Pears’ novels are not pacey page-turners. Instead of grand set pieces, he prefers a series of incidents, some highly charged, others just sharply realized. Many descriptions of aspects of country life threaten to halt the narrative. Here, Pears provides an abundance: horses racing, mowing fields, giving birth; fairs, harvests, livestock auctions; flora, fauna, farmers.
But it seems churlish to fault Pears for these scenes and images because he does them so well. Most memorable are the more cruel interludes — pheasant hunts, ferrets down rabbit burrows, pig slaughters and carve-ups — all of which jolt us after quieter, gentler stretches.
Equally arresting are Pears’ ground-down characters, such as Dunstone, the estate’s vagabond (“He was neither young nor old, and he was both”) or “bibbling fool” Isaiah.
As with Thomas Hardy’s pastoral pockets of Wessex, Pears delineates a specific topography, conveys a rough-and-smooth mode of living and gives voice to an all-important manner of speaking. His lucid prose is peppered with colorful regional dialect. Leo is a “yay-nay” preoccupied with “pad-nags.” Characters are zart and twily; they meech off and get the crinkum-crankums.
Two of those characters matter. Leo and Charlotte come alive through the subtle gestures and intimations that form their burgeoning and illicit friendship. The lay of Pears’ land is the other main delight of this beautiful and engaging novel.
Bring on the second act.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Tim Pears.
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 302 pages, $29.