The Horseman review: Bittersweet elegy to an innocent, idyllic world
The plot, centring around a schoolboy with a passion for horses, is little more than a skeletal structure that allows the writer to flesh out a vibrant, vividly detailed Devon
Tim Pears has built his reputation on novels that employ the family dynamic to explore social issues. Photograph: Rory Carnegie
Opening in rural Devon in 1911, The Horseman is a bildungsroman centring on Leo Sercombe, a young schoolboy who lives on the estate of Lord Prideaux. The son of a carter, and old enough now to help with the horses, Leo is attuned to nature’s rhythms and knowledgeable enough on the Bible to recognise the prelapsarian potential of his surroundings. “He might have been the first human upon the earth,” Leo muses as he walks home from school, “striding through the garden. He doubted whether there were any places so beautiful in all the planets known or unknown to man, or to God.”
Previously the winner of the Hawthornden Prize and the Lannan Literary Award, Tim Pears has built his reputation on novels that employ the family dynamic to explore social issues. The Horseman, his ninth novel and the first in a proposed trilogy, situates the Sercombe family in an apparently idyllic and self-contained world in which the horrors of the first World War are unimaginable and history-making events (Home Rule, the miners’ strikes, ‘the Vandals and Goths’ of the suffragette movement) are little more than vague rumours. Rural Devon is a place where “things’ll carry on one way or another”, as Albert Sercombe reassures his wife, but Leo’s fall from grace, precipitated by the passion for horses he shares with the haughty young Charlotte Prideaux, is the inevitable consequence of Leo transgressing against the social structure of his time and place.
While the bare bones of the plot are evocative of Hardy, The Horseman is a novel in which plot is little more than a skeletal structure that allows Tim Pears to flesh out a vibrant, vividly detailed Devon. Leo, our guide, has a gift for observation, and is a rudimentary philosopher to boot. Thus, when he watches a hare approach him across a field, Leo is drawn to the conclusion that, “each species of animal had its own peculiarities of vision. This world we surveyed was not as it was but as it was seen, in many different guises.”
The story proceeds by way of chapters divided into the months of the year, each month devoted to an important event on the farm: the ploughing; the sowing and reaping; the threshing; foals being born; pigs slaughtered. Unsentimental in tone, the story is richly descriptive as Pears sketches in the detail of a community’s symbiotic relationship to the land, as man imposes his will on chaotic nature: “No two fields among them were of like size or configuration. No tracks ran straight but dipped and wove around the tumps and hummocks of land. [ . . .] Streams meandered in no discernible direction, cutting deep narrow gullies here, trickling over gravel beds there. Erratic walkways crisscrossed the estate. The boy’s father Albert told him that when God created this corner of the world He’d just helped himself to a well-earned tipple.”
Pears is at his best, however, in charting Leo’s abiding love for horses, an instinctive devotion handed down from generation to generation. “He gazed upon the sets of waggon harness [ . . .] Plough strings, cart saddles, cobble trees and swingletrees, each hung on wooden pegs in its allotted place. These were the icons of beauty to the boy.” As young as he is, Leo is sure of his destiny: “He knew that he would work with horses all his life [ . . .]. He doubted whether one life was long enough to know all there was to know of horses.” The timeless nature of man’s relationship with the horse is confirmed when Leo watches his father “ride the mower . . . like one of those Canaanites who lived in the valley land and had chariots of iron.” When Leo finally races a full-grown horse, he is transported: “The boy did not know that such exhilaration existed, save for in the last days when young men shall see visions . . .”
Seeded with deliciously archaic fragments of language (“dawcoc”, “zart”, “guddled”, “gatfer”), The Horseman is itself an exhilarating vision, a bittersweet elegy for the innocent certainties of an agrarian world before the industrialised horrors of the 20th century come crashing down.
Declan Burke is an author and journalist