As spare and evocative as ever
THEREDEEMED TIM PEARS Bloomsbury, 383pp, £16.99
Banished from the rural idyll of the West Country in the years leading up to the first World War, young Leo Sercombe – the horseman of the first volume of Tim Pears’ trilogy, and subsequently one of the wanderers of the second novel, and now, we presume, one of the redeemed in the concluding volume – must walk through fire if he is to return to his beloved Devon and the landscape that Leo, acutely attuned to nature’s rhythms, has always instinctively associated with a divine presence.
The Redeemed, however, opens a long way from the West Country. Catapulted into the flames of the North Sea when the ship on which he is serving is shelled during the Battle of Scapa Flow, the half-drowned Leo rails bitterly against the God that has forsaken him. The prelapsarian paradise of The Horseman has long since been lost: “The horsemen who had been foretold had come. Fire and smoke and sulphur would issue from the horses’ mouths.”
While Leo grapples with Revelations and apocalyptic visions, Lottie – Lord Prideaux’s daughter, whom the young Leo dared to befriend before being beaten and exiled for his familiarity – has grown into an accomplished veterinarian. But the West Country is no longer the arcadian ideal Leo left behind. “Reproduction is the most extraordinary miracle in the whole of nature,” Lottie’s mentor, Patrick Jago, tells her, but it’s also “a savage business”. A savagery that is by no means the sole preserve of the animals she treats; men, as the unprotected Lottie quickly discovers, are capable of cruelties that animals couldn’t even imagine.
Told in parallel narratives which chart Leo and Lottie’s tortuous journey towards their destiny together, The Redeemed is a hugely satisfying conclusion to the West Country trilogy.
The author’s language is as spare and evocative as ever – Leo, smelling the sweat of men readying for battle, realises the musky, rank stench comes from “deeper pores, primitive glands, some true authentic depth of their being” – and his eye for the telling detail is undiminished: “the carter tugged with all his force, and the fore-leg was yanked and ripped off the body of the dead foal so abruptly that it came slithering out of the vagina of the mare and the carter staggered backwards across the wet straw of the loose box with the severed limb, like a man astounded by what he’d been given, struggling to retain his balance”.
The theme is one of rebirth, of endlessly renewing possibilities. “We may be an old species nearin the end a days,” says Leo, “or we may be a young species with heaven on earth ahead of us.” The future, whatever it holds, will be far more complex than the simple certainties that defined Leo’s childhood: “I want to work with horses . . . Just as tractors is takin over.”
But even as new technologies, and the war to end all wars, and the wisdom of age all combine to erode Lottie and Leo’s belief in the established order of things, a hard-won faith in themselves and their place in the natural cycle prevails. It is a shared vision derived from their mutual love of, and understanding of, horses:
“Lottie said that when she looked into the eyes of a horse, she acknowledged that it does not see as much as humans do, nor understand much of what it sees. ‘But I have the feeling I glimpse what is behind the horse,’ she said. ‘What made him.’ ‘God?’ ‘I don’t know. Is there a need to name it?’ Leo shook his head in agreement.”
Declan Burke is an author and journalist. He is theeditorof (NewIsland).
Trouble is Our Business
Tim Pears: his eye for the telling detail is undiminished.