Rural Devon, 1911. Life on Lord Prideaux's estate follows the pattern set by the seasons as they dictate the work on the land. Tim Pears' new novel The Horseman follows young Leo Sercombe, the carter's son, through one farming year and into the next, each episode recounted in short chapters which take the reader deep into the life of the valley.
Silent, self-contained, the boy is an observer, noticing what others take for granted or never even see, but it is his affinity with horses that drives him, an empathy which goes far beyond any sentimental attachment. As his gifts become apparent, so they are spotted by Lord Prideaux himself, his groom, and even his lordship's headstrong daughter Lottie; and as a career path appears to open up to Leo, so an unlikely friendship develops.
This is not a book for those wanting action, plot, or pace; instead, in a series of still life-like scenes of the village school, a pheasant shoot, a horse fair, the harvest, a lost world is revealed, brush stroke by slow brush stroke. The book has a distinctive rhythm, even at sentence level, and this checks one's progress through its pages, putting the reader in step with Leo's engagement with the natural world, matching his stride as he takes in every detail of his surroundings, every quirk and tic of the people amongst whom he has grown up.
The book wouldn't be out of place shelved alongside Hardy, with Cider with Rosie, perhaps The Go-Between, and Country Boy. There's nothing rose-tinted about its depiction of a harsh life, a rigidly stratified society, unremitting physical labour, unwritten codes of conduct, but there's a great deal of beauty in it, and an acute sense of 'hearing' the world turn - albeit in a few quiet West Country acres - that gives it an integrity not found in lesser pieces.
This book promises much for the remainder of the trilogy of which it's the first part; I'm sure Tim Pears will deliver.
Jim Naughtie meets the author here.