Rid­ing high on horses, hope and ru­ral life

The harsh­ness and beauty of Ed­war­dian era, English coun­try­side come alive through a farm­hand’s dreams and dilemma,

The National - News - The Review - - Fiction - writes Matthew Adams Matthew Adams is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to The Re­view.

Tim Pears’s lat­est novel, The Horse­man – his ninth and the first of a pro­jected tril­ogy – takes place be­tween Jan­uary 1911 and June 1912 in the ru­ral en­vi­rons of south-west Eng­land.

On this beau­ti­ful and de­mand­ing ground, sit­u­ated in a dip some­where be­tween the Bren­don Hills and the Quan­tocks, we meet young Leo Ser­combe and his fam­ily, each of whom has a part to play in the main­te­nance of the lo­cal land.

Leo’s fa­ther, Al­bert (an il­lit­er­ate carter), and older brother, Fred, are em­ployed by Lord Grenvil, mas­ter of the lo­cal coun­try es­tate. His mother, Ruth, looks af­ter the fam­ily home, pre­pares sim­ple meals, dreams of the music of “the sea, the rest­less churn­ing waves” that char­ac­terised her child­hood in Pen­zance, and har­bours ad­di­tional long­ings for a world else­where. In com­mon with his mother, 12-year-old Leo is a dreamer. He re­sents hav­ing go to school and of­ten plays tru­ant – partly be­cause his fel­low stu­dents mock him for his quiet­ness and in­tro­spec­tion, but largely in or­der to spend his days in fields and sta­bles, lis­ten­ing to the sounds of na­ture (“Most of the time I be lis­tenin”), and in­dulging his love of horses. He talks to them. He thinks about them. For him, horse tack pos­sesses great beauty. When we en­counter him at the be­gin­ning of the novel he has a se­cret wish: that his fa­ther will in­volve him in the de­liv­ery of the foal of No­ble, his favourite mare. And this wish turns out to be part of a grander am­bi­tion: that he will one day se­cure a job on the mas­ter’s stud farm.

These ap­par­ently sim­ple as­pi­ra­tions are com­pli­cated when Leo en­coun­ters Miss Char­lotte, daugh­ter to Lord Grenvil. They are di­vided by class. Yet they share a pas­sion for horses, and this pas­sion forms the ba­sis of a se­cret friend­ship that, once em­barked on, has the po­ten­tial to jeop­ar­dise the se­cu­rity of Leo’s fam­ily and to com­pli­cate the course of his life.

Pears’s nar­ra­tive is slow, ru­mi­na­tive and not much di­ver­si­fied by event. The au­thor clearly wants to of­fer us a sense of the in­ti­macy Leo feels with the world he in­hab­its, and to con­vey its rhythms, its won­ders, its some­times bru­tal re­al­i­ties. The ten­der­ness with which Leo min­is­ters to his horses is cap­tured with care­ful and mov­ing sim­plic­ity. And there are sev­eral in­stances of evoca­tive prose: we see a boy with “livid scar across his cheek”; a ploughed field re­veals turf that looks to have risen up “and curled over like a long thin wave break­ing on the beach”; the face of Al­bert Ser­combe looks “like some win­try Green Man akin to that carved into the end of one of the choir stalls in the vil­lage church”; frosty dawns con­front Leo with “skeins of mist in the low fields that were like the breath of the land made vis­i­ble”. Yet de­spite such mo­ments, and de­spite Pears’s at­tempts to keep us con­nected with the more sav­age el­e­ments of pas­toral life (we get lin­ger­ing de­scrip­tions, for ex­am­ple, of the dissection of a pig), the book has a ten­dency to drift into the realm of the cosy, the sen­ti­men­tal, and a kind of quaint (and con­de­scend­ing) nos­tal­gia for the hon­est dig­nity of agrar­ian labour.

Some of this can be at­trib­uted to Pears’s clumsy at­tempts to cap­ture the pat­terns of Ed­war­dian speech (“on the day fol­low­ing”; “knew not”). And there is some­thing cal­cu­lat­edly tele­genic about the book as a whole.

But what it lacks most acutely is the abil­ity to make the nat­u­ral world feel vi­tal on its own terms and for its own sake. At one point, Leo stands in a meadow and thinks about how “each species of an­i­mal had its own pe­cu­liar­i­ties of vi­sion”; about “how this world we sur­veyed was not as it was but as it was seen, in many dif­fer­ent guises”.

Yet Pears fails to pur­sue this thought with any con­vic­tion. To do so might have pro­duced a more stim­u­lat­ing and un­set­tling work. But nov­els can be many things. Some­times all you want is to set­tle down, put the cof­fee on and be cosy.

He gazed upon the sets of wag­gon harness with their back-bands and belly bands, the breech­ings and rid­ing saddle. The hal­ters and blink­ers ... These were icons of beauty

The Horse­man Tim Pears Blooms­bury, Dh41

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