The Wanderers review: Vagabonds moving through a changing world
The second in the trilogy sees Tim Pears follow The Horseman with a vivid tale of change
Tim Pears: “A taut and muscular poetry evocative of Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Hardy
It seems a little perverse that Leo Sercombe is described as “A vagabond upon the face of the earth” as The Wanderers opens. Exiled he most certainly is from the pastoral paradise of the pre-first World War rural West Country he described with a naturalist’s eye in The Horseman (2017), but Leo is no Cain. Instead he is a victim of violence, a boy brutally beaten by his father and banished from Lord Prideaux’s estate for daring to consort with Lottie Prideaux, even though their bond is more rooted in a shared love of horses than any tentative romance.
Aiming for Penzance, following a rumour of distant family, the young Leo embarks on an odyssey in a minor key. He falls in with gypsies who rescue him from starvation and exposure; finds roof and shelter on a pitiably poor sheep farm; descends deep into the played-out copper mines of the West Country; and is taken under the wing of a traumatised veteran of the Boer War. Despite his harsh experiences, however, Leo retains a childlike wonder at the miracles of the natural world. Even on the brink of death he observes the flora and fauna through a prism of instinctive spirituality: “Leo did not know what day it was. He decided it was Sunday. He watched the swallows for as long as he would have been in church, this his open air Evensong.”
While The Horseman was very much Leo’s bildungsroman, however, The Wanderers, as the title suggests, is equally concerned with Lottie. Her own odyssey mirrors Leo’s adventures as she chafes under the constraints of behaving as a young lady of the manor should, secretly pursuing an investigation into the natural world as she dissects dead birds and animals, and rejecting her father’s expectation that confines her education to that befitting a young woman bred to marry well and nothing more.
While Leo disappears into the leafy byways of Devon and Cornwall in the south of England, “Lottie Prideaux discovered that she was invisible by degrees . . . accustomed to passing through the rooms and along the corridors of the manor house unnoticed by the maids, or riding her horse Blaze unseen by the stable lads or farm workers”.
The second in a proposed trilogy, The Wanderers is more influenced by contemporary events than was The Horseman, which took place in an ostensibly idyllic and self-contained world. Attending the 1913 Derby, Lottie hears that “a madwoman had bobbed under the rails and calmly walked out into the middle of the course”. Her companion, Alice, cries for the jockey, Anmer, who was thrown: “The poor, poor man. I pray to God he lives.” Leo, meanwhile, is shown a D-shaped scar by which one of the gypsies, Samson, was branded a deserter during the Boer War. Later he comes to live with Rufus, a tramp suffering from what would today be diagnosed as PTSD as a consequence of his experiences during that war. Cyrus, a farmer, assures Leo there will be no war with Germany, it being the case that “tradin’ partners don’t fight each other”. By the time the novel concludes in 1915, however, Lottie is cantering Blaze toward imaginary German trenches, raising her wooden sword and yelling “Chaaaaarge!”.
Meanwhile, the British Empire, run by “second-class” people, is crumbling. “There were first-class and third-class carriages on the train. Second class did not exist. [. . . ] Second-class people were shipped out to man the Empire shortly after the railways were invented.” Later, a mine owner tells Leo that West Country mining is dying out because buyers can now purchase cheaper ore from Malaya. “So much for the Empire, eh? Does it help us?”
Leo and Lottie represent a generation who will have to come to terms with Britain’s seismic changes in the wake of the first World War. It’s a tale scraped bare of sentiment but told in a lyrical style, a taut and muscular poetry evocative of Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Hardy, a story that functions as a harbinger of great change to come and yet also serves as a paean to lost innocence, as Leo and Lottie efface themselves from history to disappear “into a parallel time of no past or future but only an ever on-rolling now”.
Declan Burke is an author and journalist. He is currently Dublin City Council / UNESCO writer-in-residence