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,
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